When Kate Paulson’s* mother comes over to visit, she and her grandchildren typically watch a movie together. But about a year ago Paulson noticed that every time they sat down to watch, her mother would get on her phone and go on social media.
Her mother-in-law similarly spends a lot of time on her device when her grandchildren are around. “As much as my mother-in-law likes to do things with them, she absolutely loves her iPad,” says Paulson. “She plays games a lot when she’s babysitting the kids and gives it to them to use way more than I would.”
She’s also found that after the kids go to sleep, her mother-in-law stays up late playing games, which makes her exhausted–and sometimes short and irritable with the children—in the morning. “That irks me,” says Paulson.
When it comes to screen time, Paulson, like most parents, keeps a close eye on the amount of time her children spend on their devices. But she’s worried about how much time her kids’ grandmothers are spending on their phones and iPads when they’re with her kids—and the effect it might be having on her kids. It’s an awkward subject to bring up though, especially to her mother-in-law, she says, as she doesn’t typically think of needing to “parent” the grandparents. “I don’t want to open a can of worms,” she says.
More boomers using smartphones
Paulson’s kids aren’t the only ones whose grandparents gravitate to tablets and phones when they’re around—a Rutgers University study found that kids’ aged two to seven spend about 50 percent of their time on a device—watching videos or playing games—during their visits with grandparents.
And while people often think of excessive phone use as a younger generation issue, studies show that boomers are just as enamoured with their devices as other age groups. Depending on which piece of research you look at, those born between 1944 and 1964, spend 10 hours a day, on average, in front of some sort of screen, with smartphones accounting for between two and five hours of that total. Much of that time is spent playing games or surfing the Internet— Facebook is big among this cohort, according to studies.
As well, while all age groups have seen their smartphone use increase over the years, the 65-plus group was the only cohort that didn’t cut back on other types of screentime—boomers just added more to their days. “In many cases they’re like 12 or 13-year-olds who have just gotten their first smartphone,” says Matthew Johnson, director of education at MediaSmarts, an Ottawa-based organization that studies and promotes digital and media literacy. “I’m always hesitant to use words like addictive, because the science isn’t there yet, but we know that people can spend time with these types of activities at the expense of other things in their lives.”
While there so far aren’t studies that have looked at how increasing smartphone use impacts the grandparent-grandchild relationship, there are some on how the parent-child relationship is affected by device usage, which Johnson says may be applicable. A big issue with distracted parenting—the term given to parents who overuse their mobiles when they’re around children —is that it can put children in danger. A study by the American Academy of Pediatrics found a correlation between phone use by parents and incidences of playground injury.
A separate Boston Medical Center study found that distracted parents were more likely to get irritated with their children’s behavior—they get upset faster—while other research has found that too much screen time can impact the connection between parents and children. “There’s no reason to think that wouldn’t be true with grandparents as well,” says Johnson.
When it comes to grandparents and device use, however, it’s important to keep things in perspective and look at the specific circumstances. For example, Sara Dimerman, a Toronto-based psychologist, parenting expert and author, says the length of the visit might play a role: if your kid is with their grandparent for a few hours during the day, for example, they can probably keep their phones at bay, but if a sleepover is involved, they’ll be more likely to need their fix.
Grandparents might also consider watching YouTube videos or playing iPad games together to be time well spent with their grandkids—and many simply want to please their grandchildren, so they’re quick to say yes to screentime. This isn’t necessarily all that different from the past—many of us watched cartoons or other television programs with our grandparents—but if it’s what they mostly do together, then that’s a problem, says Dimerman.
She doesn’t necessarily recommend butting in, though. As long as everyone is happy, a little extra phone time for the children and the grandparents at a weekend sleepover is similar to when the grandparents give their grandkids an extra helping of ice cream after dinner, says Dimerman.
However, pay attention to see if it’s impacting the grandparent-grandchild relationship, says Julie Freedman Smith, founder of Calgary-based Parenting Power. It’s likely a problem if your children mention it. They might say that they would like to talk to their grandmother, but they can’t or maybe they say something about getting into arguments with a grandparent when they’re on their phone, because the grandparent isn’t listening when the child is trying to interact with them. “These are good indications that something’s happening—that they’re trying to get the adult’s attention,” says Freedman Smith.
Have a constructive conversation
If you do see the device use as a bigger issue, then at some point you will need to talk to your parents. That’s what Paulson did about the phone during movie night. “I finally told her that it bothered me,” she says. “I said we’re not spending quality time together if everyone is distracted by a device.” Fortunately, her mother listened to what she was saying, and she hasn’t picked up her device during movie time again.
It’s a different story with her mother-in-law. While she would like to say something about her smartphone use, she hasn’t spoken up. “I don’t like conflict,” says Paulson. So far, she’s handled it by telling her kids to abide by the house smartphone rules when they’re at a sleepover, which they do, she says. “They hand the phone back to her when they’ve reached their limit,” she says. “My 14-year-old even sets a timer.”
If you do want to talk to your family member, using blaming or accusatory language won’t get you very far. Instead, be respectful and constructive. Ask your parents if they would be willing to hear your perspective on cell phone use in general and the way they are hoping to model this to your children. Then, you can ask for the grandparents’ support, suggests Dimerman. Use words like, “I’ve noticed that,” or “I’m hoping you can,” as opposed to, “you’re always on the phone,” adds Freedman Smith. Don’t have this conversation as the parent is using their phone—wait for another time, when they’re not using it and when the kids aren’t around. As well, if you find you’re taking the grandparents’ phone use personally—and wondering WHY they’d rather be on their phones than hanging out with your kids—try and keep your emotions at bay. It might help to script what you’re going to say ahead of time.
As well, as much as your parents may like to be around the kids, it’s possible they don’t know what to do with them. If they seem open to it, you can give them ideas on where to take their grandkids—an indoor playground, for instance—or offer some ideas for activities, like colouring or drawing, that they can do with them. It’s also fine to let your parents know that it’s OK to say no to screentime, adds Dimerman.
When it comes to playing video games with the grandkids on devices, Freedman Smith doesn’t think parents should get too worked up. “There is some kind of communication happening between the child and the adult,” she says. “I think it’s healthier if they are using it together.” Still, there’s nothing wrong with explaining the rules you have at your house and asking the grandparents to follow them as best they can. As well, the Canadian Paediatric Society has screen time guidelines, such as no screen time for children under two, which you can review with your parents.
Parents need to look at their own phone use, too. If you’re on your phone constantly, then what kind of message are you sending to not only your children, but your parents, too? “Look at your own behaviour,” says Dimerman. If you’re trying hard to curb your own smartphone overuse then you can say to your parents that you’re working hard at making changes and it would be great if they could do their part. If you’re not trying to improve, then it may be harder to convince other people to adjust their own habits.
While Paulson wishes her mother-in-law would use her phone less, the kids do bond with their grandmother, she says. They go for walks and participate in other activities, like playing board games, baking, going to the movies and shopping together. She also shows up for their school activities and cheers them on, so it’s not all smart phone all the time. And, in those cases when she’s taking them for a few nights, a little distracted grandparenting is still worth the break from parenting. “Who would ever say no to having a weekend off?” she says. If she has one piece of advice for grandparents, it’s to remember what made them feel connected to their kids or to their grandparents when they were younger. “No one will look back and say we really wish we had more screen time with grandma.”
*NAME HAS BEEN CHANGED