Are cell phones ruining family time?

The way you use your mobile device around your family can affect your relationships. Cell phones can make you feel more connected, but they also can distract you and your family from connecting with each other in person. Your view on whether it’s okay to use cell phones during family time is likely related to how often you use your own phone around your family. While some people need to check their phones for work or emergency purposes, it’s important to model and prioritize putting away phones and to engage in face-to-face communication.

Some people have trouble putting away their cell phone even when it causes problems. They might feel a lack of control over how often they pick up their phone or how long they use it. They might feel the need to constantly check it without a real reason or feel upset if they don’t have access to the phone. Using a cell phone for work purposes during family time can increase distress and strain on a family. While using their cell phones, parents talk to their kids less, respond more slowly, and overreact to being interrupted. And snubbing your partner while on the phone (“phubbing”) is linked to lower relationship satisfaction among couples.

To assess whether cell phones are getting in the way of your family’s time together, ask yourself how much you use your own phone when you’re together. Maybe there’s an opportunity to cut back. Doing so can benefit you, your partner, your kids, and your relationships.

Once you’ve given some thought to your own cell phone use (and what you might be modeling for your family), think about the rules you want your family to follow when you’re together. To get your family on the same page, call a family meeting. Review each person’s current cell phone use, what’s working, and areas where you think some changes might help. If you have kids, ask their opinions on your own cell phone use. You might be surprised by what they have to share. Use good communication skills by practicing active listening and showing curiosity about what each family member has to say. Consider the following questions and agree on a family media plan that works for everyone.

  • What does appropriate use of cell phones look like for our family?
  • Can we agree to place all cell phones on silent, in a basket, or out of view during mealtimes and other family time?
  • When do we want to use cell phones to play family games together?
  • How does everyone feel about limiting cell phone use during family outings?

Quality time together strengthens family resilience. People rate the quality of their conversations as “significantly higher” when smartphones are not present, regardless of age, ethnicity, gender, or mood. Less cell-phone use also usually means less screen time, which enables kids to get outdoors and be more physically active. When teens spend more time actively engaged with their parents, they tend to set higher educational goals.


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De-Sola Gutiérrez, J., Rodríguez de Fonseca, F., & Rubio, G. (2016). Cell-phone addiction: A review. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 7. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2016.00175

Moser, C., Schoenebeck, S. Y., & Reinecke, K. (2016). Technology at the table. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems

Radesky, J., & Moreno, M. A. (2018). How to consider screen time limits…for parents. JAMA Pediatrics, 172(10). doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2018.2550

Roberts, J., Yaya, L., & Manolis, C. (2014). The invisible addiction: Cell-phone activities and addiction among male and female college students. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 3(4), 254–265. doi:10.1556/jba.3.2014.015