Turns out, teenagers are also annoyed when loved ones are distracted by their devices. Below, a father and daughter discuss each other’s phone usage and how it makes them feel. Our expert responds with advice for learning how to “put down the phone” and really listen to one another.
PARENT | William Lucas Walker
My parents don’t have devices, and yet they still manage to have lives. At 91, my dad still mows the lawn, plays golf, and slays his daily crossword. At 89, my mom no longer paints. But she’s still a go-go-goer who gardens, cooks, and always has new plans for the house. (“I’m turning my art studio into an office!”). More than anything, my parents love spending time with their eight grandchildren. None live close by, so my parents treasure their hours together.
Lately, technology has changed all that. I’ve watched the mute, pained expressions that have begun to creep across my parents’ faces as their grandchildren isolate themselves in plain sight, on sofas and chairs, texting, playing Minecraft, scrolling through Instagram and Snapchat.
Their message is unintentional, but hard to miss. “Love you, Mimi and Pop, but my screen is more important, more interesting, and more worth my time than you.”
Last year, I asked my parents to tell my kids how that feels. They did, with great sensitivity, wisdom, and love. Their words were far more powerful and effective than anything I could have said.
We instituted a new rule. Time with Mimi and Pop is golden, so all devices stay in bedrooms. That’s where I left mine the day my dad drove us into the mountains to glory in the autumn leaves. I was a little taken aback when he asked me to GPS directions on my phone so we could get back home, but I was proud to say, “I left it back at the house.” That’s how we got lost. And saw lots more leaves than we bargained for, while my dad cursed under his breath. It was golden.
William Lucas Walker has written for the sitcoms Frasier, Will & Grace, and Roseanne.
TEEN | Elizabeth Walker-Ziegler
I am guilty of being on my device when talking to another individual. Almost every teenager is. But, we are also hypocrites. When I am talking to a friend and they choose to ignore me, it gets me a little heated. When I am talking to a parent and they are on their phone, I know they don’t have the same multitasking capability my generation has in listening and engaging in a conversation at the same time as checking Facebook.
No one likes being cast aside when you are trying to get a point across, but it bothers me that devices have really screwed with people’s mindsets.
It seems like no one has the consciousness to understand how to interact with each other offline.
My dad, out of everyone in our family, is on his phone the most. For example, he will ask me a question like, “How was volleyball practice?” As much as I don’t feel like responding, I know he will get mad at me if I don’t. But while answering, he decides that he should check his email and then add to his grocery list. He then proceeds to say, “Oh, fun,” without taking his eyes off his phone. Then, I will plug in and listen to music because I know he didn’t hear any of my answer, and then he will say, “Could you put down the phone for just five minutes?”
Every person with a phone, tablet, or computer is lying if they say that they’ve never done this, and I hope that this changes in the future because even my generation, full of technology, can’t stand it.
Elizabeth Walker-Ziegler, 15, is a sophomore at Immaculate Heart High School in Los Angeles, where she enjoys playing volleyball.
EXPERT | Devorah Heitner, Ph.D.
You can’t “two-time” your attention. When you do, your family knows. Kids hate when a parent asks a question and then doesn’t listen to the answer. In my workshops with kids, most teens and tweens have stories about their parents not really hearing them when they are talking. They also say their parents are texting while they are driving. Or they ask their kids to text for them so they can drive. A few even reported resorting to hiding their parents’ phones while they are cooking or otherwise distracted so that they can talk with them. Other teens told stories of having to repeat entire stories about their day as parents drive, text, and attempt to check in with their kids.
As a parent myself, I empathize with parents who feel pressured by work, elder care, and other demands (Words with Friends, Facebook) to check their phones frequently.
But if we want our kids to “put down the phone” or turn over the tablet or when we’re talking with them, we need to model that behavior.
It isn’t always realistic to just stop doing whatever you’re doing—but if you can do this enough of the time, and make eye contact, your child will feel heard and it will be easier to uphold the expectation that your teen will stop texting when you need their attention, too.
Devorah Heitner, Ph.D., is the author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) In Their Digital World.