When Jill Anzarut took her kids to a regular medical checkup earlier this summer, the doctor did the usual poking and prodding, and then came down hard on one issue: limiting screen time at home.
"She was adamant," Anzarut says. Her kids, nine-year-old Ben and six-year-old Laila, were to limit their screen time to one hour a day – doctor's orders.
Anzarut, who works in communications for a bank, and her husband are also trying to put away their own phones at home. But like most parents in today's world, where work doesn't end just because you've left the office, they frequently have to log on to one screen or another.
"When I am working or checking e-mail in front of them, they don't like that, nor should they," Anzarut says.
While much attention has been paid to limiting screen time for children for the benefit of their physical and mental development and establishing rules to help enforce those limits, too few parents consider such rules for themselves.
But the full effect of parents' screen usage on kids paints an alarming picture that we must do more to address, experts warn. The reality is we parents are just as obsessed – and before admonishing our kids, we should lead by example.
Too often, the message kids get is that screens are more important to their parents than they are.
In a survey of more than 6,000 parents and children between the ages of 8 and 13 across nine countries, including Canada, conducted by online security company AVG Technologies in June, 54 per cent of kids felt parents checked their devices too often. And 36 per cent said their biggest grievance was when parents became distracted by their device during conversation, which made 32 per cent of kids feel unimportant.
"We need to think about what we're modelling and the message that we're sending to our kids," says Matthew Johnson, director of education at MediaSmarts, a non-profit organization dedicated to digital and media literacy.
In many cases, parents' addiction to screens can have damaging emotional and psychological consequences, says Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist and author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age.
"They feel lonely. They feel mad. They feel frustrated. They feel like they are not as important or as compelling as whoever or whatever is on the other side of the telephone," she says.
In interviews with children conducted for her book, Steiner-Adair said kids used those words – "sad," "lonely," "angry," and "frustrated" – whether they were 4, 12 or 18 years old.
"A lot of kids said, 'I must just be boring to my dad because when we're together he's texting,'" Steiner-Adair says. "They feel like they just don't matter enough."
And kids who are being ignored may look for attention in negative ways.
Last year, Dr. Jenny Radesky, a pediatrician at Boston Medical Center, and colleagues observed 55 groups of parents and kids at fast-food restaurants. A majority of adults – 40 of them – took out a mobile device during the meal.
The researchers observed a disconcerting pattern: The more parents were absorbed by devices, the more likely their children were to act out. The kids' misbehaviour was likely an attempt to get their parents' attention, the researchers said.
Anzarut's son, Ben, says, "It's a little bit unfair" when his parents are on screens. And there are moments when he feels that his parents should be paying attention to him, not their devices.
"I get their attention so they'll listen," he says. How? "By either talking to them or shaking them."
Like so many families, "Work has permeated our home life," says Hilary Holden, the director of transit and sustainable transportation for the city of Toronto. "We've literally got the computer, the iPad, the iPhones surrounding us in the house."
Last month, Holden, who has a five-year-old son, was clearly feeling the frustration of technology interrupting what should be family time.
"Our family is having a time out from the influence of iPads and iPhones, they're only allowed in the bathroom," she tweeted.
Doug Jost, who retired from the Royal Canadian Navy this summer, is very conscious of setting a good example for his kids, ages nine and 12.
"When I'm at the playground I do not have a phone on me. I do not care about the phone. I want to show that it's not the [priority], the kids are," says Jost, who lives in Quebec City.
It may be difficult for parents to unplug, but just like kids, we need rules for our screen time.
"We didn't grow up with this, either. We all have to learn the same skills of consciously turning off," Johnson says.
And, he suggests, here's a general rule to start with: "Any time that's defined as 'family time' should be device-free."
Steiner-Adair suggests more specific rules, including waking up 30 minutes early to check e-mail so that kids have your undivided attention in the morning, and no Bluetooth in the car.
Another important one: Don't come through the door on your phone. Children getting shushed or told, "Just one second" by parents coming home on work calls was a consistent lament in her interviews, Steiner-Adair says.
"A lot of kids said they've just given up on running to give their mom or dad a hug," she says. "When you come home from work, come home with the expectation that you'll be offline for an hour or two."