‘Phone parenting’ could trigger mental health issues

By YU GUOLIANG / 02-16-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

A truck driver video chats with her daughter in Wenzhou, Zhejiang in July, 2022. Photo: CFP 

As smart phones have become more widely adopted, an increasing number of parents have begun using them as a substitute for face to face interaction with their children. As a result, the potential for mental health issues amongst both parents and children has gained focus. While new technology seems to provide a convenient conduit for parent-child communication, in reality, it could mean that parents are resorting less to parenting by personal example. It also makes it easier for children to avoid their parents if they wish. Consequently, raising children by “phone parenting” could have negative consequences for the mental health of both parents and children. 

Mobile phone dependence 

“Mobile phone dependence” is also called “phone addiction” or “problematic smartphone use.” It is usually defined as obsession over all kinds of activities with phones as the intermedium. It is a non-material addiction, or behavioral addiction that leads to impaired physiological, psychological, and social functions. As a habitual behavior, phone dependence is bound to impact users’ mental health, and worsen internal and external mental health issues. Researchers believe that these individuals are usually under heavy livelihood and mental pressures, and deal passively with life issues by resorting excessively to phones to escape their problems. These behaviors are thought to further exacerbate mental wellbeing. 

Phone addiction itself is a troubling issue for many parents. Phone dependence, as a passive coping strategy, may exacerbate parents’ latent mental problems, potentially triggering anxiety or depression. Their sleep quality and interpersonal relationships may suffer, as will life satisfaction. 

A concept associated with parents’ phone dependence is “parental phubbing,” which specifically refers to parents’ excessive focus on their phones while neglecting children during parent-child interactions. Essentially, this behavior is a direct outcome of parents’ dependence on phones and runs parallel with phone parenting. The difference between the two is that the former occurs when parents are with children, whereas the latter means parents engage in parenting over the phone when absent. Parental phubbing reflects a parent’s neglect for their children, and phone parenting shows that although children are receiving attention, it is quite passive. 

Although parenting over the phone does involve a degree of interaction, this kind of live but short verbal communication works like fast food. Namely, fast food satiates hunger immediately, yet contains little nutrition, and may even severely impact one’s health. By imparting proper behavior to their children over the phone, parents may feel they have “nailed it.” But in actuality, this is merely an evasion of parental responsibilities and obligations. The educational effects and significance are both diminished. “Fast-food style” parenting is in no way ideal confronting the complex challenges of raising kids, especially the difficulties they may face in knowing themselves, adjusting their moods, interacting with others, socialization, etc. 

Features, causes, outcomes 

Phone parenting is different from traditional parenting in many ways. On one side, it makes parenthood more easily accessible. Even when they are not around, parents can continue providing guidance and advice to children, which helps to form bonds and facilitate harmonious family relations. 

On the other side, however, smart phones fail to bridge emotional gaps, and sometimes fail to deliver effective communication, let alone desired educational effects. 

In many societies, social and cultural norms bestow different expectations on fathers and mothers. Mothers are generally expected to shoulder more of the parenting duties. Under these gender-based expectations, it is typically mothers who engage in phone parenting. 

Last, phone parenting is mostly conducted via texts and video chats, and the two mediums have different impacts. Video chats are more intimate and allow for more direct feedback, but they may also manifest parents’ stronger intention of control. Texts are more flexible, hence emotional expression and confrontation can be avoided. However, neither can be compared with face-to-face parenting. 

One reason why phone parenting has become so popular may have something to do with the circumstances of individual parents. The first factor is their personality characteristics. Whether a parent is an introvert or extrovert may be an influencing factor. For instance, extroverted parents may be more likely to text or video chat with their children. 

The second factor is parenting pressure. In a parent-child relationship, children need support and assistance from parents, and parents also depend on their children to fulfill their need for self-identity and a sense of belonging. Thus, to fulfill the latter need and ease their guilt towards children due to not being present, some parents may resort to phone parenting. In actuality, phone parenting is like a placebo that does not really treat the illness. It cannot bring parents back to children, neither can it make the already distant relationship more intimate. It is merely a passive, burden reducing strategy. 

The third factor is life pressure. When parents are challenged socially or financially, they may turn to their phones to escape problems and ease burdens. Phone parenting, as an important form of parental phone dependence, can help those that have fallen down the social ladder regain their self-identity as parents, improve their mental state, and ease their daily pressure. From this perspective, it can be seen as a strategic coping mechanism. 

Phone parenting is the product of the hi-tech era. Technology has provided parents with new, supplementary mediums through which to raise their kids. Yet this fast-food style of parenting cannot truly discipline children and induces long-term side-effects on both sides. For example, phone parenting is restricted to verbal communication and short-term effects. It cannot accurately convey emotions and non-verbal cues, which could trigger misunderstandings and even make children feel like they are being monitored. 

Another side-effect of phone parenting is the mismatched intention of communication between the two sides. If children do not wish to talk to their parents, it is easy to avoid them if phones are their only medium of communication. Their avoidance will hurt parents’ self-identity and mental wellbeing. 


Intervention strategy 

The essence of parenting is parents’ words and deeds as examples. Instead of telling children how to conduct themselves and handle affairs, parents need to set good examples. However, if phone parenting already occurs, or if it is parents’ only solution, there are some intervening measures that they can take to mitigate the side-effects. 

From the perspective of social environmental factors, smart phones are the chief objective condition for parenting when parents are not with their children. Still, this does not count as a sufficient reason for opting for phone parenting. Society needs to think about how to create conditions for parents to be around their children and provide face-to-face parenting while still being able to provide for them. The government needs to offer more protective measures to guarantee migrant children’s education, so that parents are able to and confident of bringing children to the city in which they work. 

Parents also need to learn to ease their parenting pressure. Parenthood is a duty and an identity. They are individuals before they are parents, hence for the sake of their children they mustn’t neglect their own mental health. To reduce phone parenting, parents need to learn the best, most effective and most active ways of parenting, while enhancing their mental tenacity. Parents need to try their best to take part in their children’s development by setting good examples. When they are not around, they should not overly rely on phones, neither should they interfere in children’s life without limit or treat parenting as a burden. Parents’ sound mental health conveys unconscious positive influence on children’s growth. 

Committed, involved parents are essential to raising children, but more importantly, they need to know what good parenting actually is. Participative parenting is essential, therefore so is the mental health of parents. Based on ecological system theory, parents are the direct micro system that influences children’s mental wellbeing. Thus, researchers and society as a whole need to understand how to improve the psychological health education of parents. 

First, the government needs to strengthen mental health education from the policy level. For instance, relevant knowledge can be imparted to and popularized among parents via television and the internet. Training programs can be held inside communities to provide assistance and support for parents. 

Next, parents should further develop their mental health consciousness. While becoming more aware of their own mental health, they need to address stereotypes and avoid stigmatization towards mental and behavioral problems. When mental health issues surface, they need to seek professional help from psychologists or psychiatrists. 

Last, the aim of mental health education is to ensure individuals’ mental health and make them happier. For parents to achieve happiness, it is necessary for them to maintain good relationships with others in their families, at work and in life. They need to learn to govern their moods, handle marital problems, and maintain stable marriages. A happy and mentally sound individual is more likely to become a good parent. 

Yu Guoliang is a professor from the Institute of Psychology at Renmin University of China. 

Edited by WENG RONG