Healthy Social Media Use for Families

By Sara Davy, Maternal Wellness Coach and Catherine Ockenden, Social Media Consultant

Picture this: You are on your laptop in the kitchen checking emails. Your son is in his room playing an online game. Your toddler is lying on the couch watching kids YouTube on the IPad, your partner is upstairs on their phone, and has been for the past hour. Suddenly, some device rings in the background and you wonder, ‘where could THAT be coming from?’.

Does this sound like a familiar scenario in your home? Everyone seems to be on some kind of device, all the time. You remember going out for family outings, celebrating holidays, playing in the park and creating memories away from the internet and social media. It WAS a big part of your lives, but now it seems like a distant memory. The online world has really taken over your household.

But do you know the actual health repercussions of too much screen time on families? We are going to take a deep dive into the way that social media and the online world can affect parents, kids and teens. And it’s a lot.

Are we spending too much time online?


In this study parents of children aged 5-18 reported spending slightly less quality time with their kids than they spend on their phones.

Sociologists, media theorists and technology experts have argued that digital technology is distracting us, resulting in negative social and emotional consequences.

Social scientists have coined the phrase ‘technoference’ which describes how technology interferes with social relationships. The most important relationship is, of course, being with our children. And the negative consequences of ‘technoference’ for babies and young children can be quite life-altering, including impaired emotional well-being, parents missing bids for attention, less positive interactions, poor child behaviour, delayed language development and even an increase in child injuries.

What behaviour is this teaching our children? When we are unable to be fully present with them for more than a few minutes because we need to keep checking our phone this is showing them that whatever is on our phone is more important than them. It can also make a rod for our own back when they get older and we ask them to concentrate at school or on a particular project, if they have been learning from us that it’s ‘normal’ to check the phone regularly, we can’t really blame them for wanting to do the same or having shorter attention spans. They learn from us so we need to be the example of healthy social media use. We need to be teaching them that the real world is where to find genuine connection and create real relationships rather than relying on gratification from strangers online.


And when it comes to the way that social media apps are built, there are a lot of parts built into the apps which aim to keep us on the platforms for as long as possible. The way that news feeds are built, makes them addictive to the user as the more you interact with content that you like, the more of that will be shown to you. And it’s rewarding in this way.

Apps like TikTok use a technique called ‘machine learning’ which, according to is a branch of artificial intelligence (AI)and computer science which focuses on the use of data and algorithms to imitate the way that humans learn, gradually improving its accuracy. After regular use, picking up your phone becomes routine, and in some cases, can become secondary to speaking to people IRL (in real life).

Why would you try and find common ground or make the effort to understand what your child is saying, when you can get that instant hit of gratification from social media, which will show you exactly the sort of content that interests you!

The struggle of being present

How would you like your children to remember their earlier years with you? How would you feel if you missed their milestones such as first roll, first steps? Children are taking in so much of the world in those early years and they notice things such as always looking at the back of the phone in front of Mum’s face or Dad looking at his phone while they are telling him about their day. Children mimic our facial expressions and will get more benefit from seeing our full expression rather than one that is half blocked by a phone. In order to teach them how to make deep connections with people and how to communicate properly, we need to set the example of person to person communication. There are some things that just can’t be learnt in the online world.

We often hear about meal times being the one time of the day when everyone is home and can catch up with each other, therefore, it is an important part of the day. Often for the partner who has gone to work during the day, they can make the most of this time by engaging in conversation and bonding with their children before they go to bed. It also encourages mindful eating when people are not distracted by their phones and this in itself is a healthy habit to get into for all sorts of reasons.

When you search the web on ‘how to be more present with your children’, number one is often, ‘put away your phone or your device’. Even the casual blogger or micro influencer is well aware that to fully engage with your children, you need to put phones and devices away. BUT who out there has the willpower and self control to do this consistently?

And then there’s the elephant in the room: If you are a vlogger, blogger or influencer you NEED to be online for a large proportion of the day. Let’s examine three strategies from the web that are aimed at helping parents:

This article from Huff Post suggests this.

1.) Put away the screens, multitasking and other distractions and spend quality one on one time with your child, giving them all of your warmth and attention. Set a timer for anywhere between 15-60 minutes. Until that timer goes off, bathe your child in your pure attention, warmth and love. Let your child choose what he or she wants to do, and simply go with their flow, offering your observation, encouragement, warmth and love. You will feel connected to your child, and able to focus on them in nourishing ways, while also nourishing your own need for connection.

An article from lists this strategy:

“Step Three: Hide your Phone”. Just being around an electronic device can be detrimental, says Kristen Race, Ph.D., founder of Mindful Life, an organization that trains parents, schools, and businesses to practice mindfulness. “Even hearing a phone vibrate makes your brain go someplace else,” she explains. Dr. Race suggests starting small. Put your phone in a drawer during meals. Stick it in the glove box for short car trips. Leave it at home when you all walk the dog and, instead, you could suggest listening for five different sounds along the way, pointing out five different things that are blue, or checking out the cloud formations. Dr. Race says, “You need to look for ways to carve out airplane mode for your family.” affirms the above ideas:

“Time to put the phone away”

They deserve phone-free time from you. You deserve phone-free time with them.

Try to limit your dependence on your smartphone as much as possible. Get a landline at home so you’re not carrying your cell phone around the house. Stop using your phone as an alarm clock. Charge it in some inconvenient place so it’s out of sight, out of mind. Commit, in the mornings for instance, not to check your phone for your first thirty minutes after waking up. Or put it away from dinner until the kids’ bedtime. Whatever. Make up some rules that give you phone-free time—that give your kids phone-free Dad time.

The verdict: Would any of this actually work?

If your job is centred off line entirely or you have the option of unplugging completely when you get home these strategies are probably more likely to work. However, if you own or co-own a small business, you will be aware that you need to have a consistent social media presence nowadays to be a fully formed brand. Physically distancing yourself from your phone obviously would work to an extent. But can you switch off completely? Knowing how many notifications you will have when you regain your phone again?

Bonding time with our children - are they getting enough?

Those precious care moments such as feeding your child, changing their nappy, dressing or bathing them etc. are all opportunities for bonding with your children. They are the times when your child is vulnerable and relying on you for meeting their needs so if you are looking at your phone or watching TV then this interferes with that connection. If you are wanting a deep bond with your child then we suggest not having the phone on you at all during these times so you can be fully present with your child in these bonding moments.

Bonding times with you children can really be in any moment of any day, it could be in the story they want to share with you, in helping you cook dinner or in morning cuddles in bed. It is therefore super important to be mindful of your phone use so that you don’t miss an opportunity with your child in a moment when they are seeking connection with you.

What is more important? The phone or bonding time with your children? Our children grow so quickly and therefore if we spend too much time on our phone we could look back one day and feel like we missed out by not being fully present.

Here’s what has to say:

Ways to help develop a loving relationship with your child

It’s really important to:

  • spend time with your tamariki – they need your attention and your guidance

  • talk to your child or baby, and listen to them when they reply, whether they do that with movement, sounds, or words

  • tell them and show them you love them often

  • smile at them and laugh with them

  • touch them - massage and tickles are a great way to connect

  • cuddle, kiss, hug and be gentle with them

  • copy their sounds and gestures as they start to learn language.

  • listen to them

  • tell them what you’re doing and feeling

  • talk lots with them about what is happening and their emotions

  • support them to explore their environment

  • help them learn to be patient

  • play with them – it lets them know they’re important to you and is a great relationship builder

  • say sorry when you make mistakes - this helps them learn that you make mistakes and make it better afterwards

  • talk to your whānau about how you are feeling and about how you can care for your child together.

Parents that are spending more quality time on their phones than with their children are ‘missing out’ on having more precious moments with their children which helps connection and increases the bond between parent and child.

The ‘image’ of Mum and Dad on their phones - is this a problem?

Not only can too much phone time damage the early development of children, but it can hurt your relationship with your significant other as well. And children learn from their parent’s behaviour.

Have you heard of the newly invented term: Phubbing? says: “Phubbing is basically defined as looking at a cell phone rather than interacting with the person you are with, and research shows that it can damage your relationship with your romantic partner and may also harm your bond with your kids”.

It becomes a problem when you are looking at your messages every few minutes or so or all these moments add up to a lot of time spent on your phone.

And this article from The Independent says that; Children learn and develop their behaviour by watching others, especially their parents, and this includes screen use. Children, whose parents are distracted by their phones during such family times, can feel like they are competing for attention, which can often result in them acting out because they feel sad, angry and lonely.

Generally, and speaking in 2021, in the aftermath of the Covid 19 Pandemic, loneliness and feelings of isolation in people are on the rise. People have turned to online communities, online gaming and social media to connect with others and feel like they are not alone. But the lack of in person interaction can often make people feel empty. If children see their parents and caregivers spending too much time in front of a screen, then acting out because of the lack of attention can increase. The average screen time each day has increased significantly over the past decade with some sources like this report from We Are Social and Hootsuite stating that it’s around 7 hours per day globally.

We need to take into account the hours spent working from home into this in 2020, but even pre-pandemic the hours spent online were over six per day.

Setting a Good Example

Children model our behaviour so what are we teaching them? It is often mentioned about how when we were children there were no cell phones so we were always outside playing or our parents were fully present with us during family time. The introduction of smartphones has also encouraged this lifestyle of always being contactable – obviously this can have both a positive and negative effect.

Emergencies can be dealt with immediately and if you are the customer then having the person you need contactable 24/7 is handy but what about the other side of it when it’s a Sunday and its family time? Are we teaching children that work is a 24/7 thing? Or are we wanting to teach them to balance it out? If a child is always expecting that their parents' time with them will be cut short or constantly interrupted by the phone then they could begin to feel that they are not as important or loved enough to gain the full attention of their parents. This could create self-confidence, self-love and self-judgement issues down the line. Children could feel not good enough, not important enough, not a priority etc.

Children who feel more emotionally secure growing up are more likely to turn into emotionally secure adults and therefore more confident and able to tackle the challenges of life. We are the example and therefore we need to be a good role model.

Ipad Babies - are we raising them?

From a children’s screen time perspective, a new phrase ‘IPad Babies’ or ‘IPad Kids’ has evolved in recent times. This abc article talks more about this. Basically these are children who instead of playing with toys and going out and socialising with other children they are sitting in front of an IPad to stop them annoying their parents. Has the IPad become a better form of entertainment than playing with family members? Or is it just a fun distraction?

There are a lot of different opinions on how much screen time is too much screen time.

According to a 60 minutes Australia investigation in 2015, children may need to drastically change their screen behaviour, and parent’s need to drastically change their children’s daily screen time.

From age 0 - 3 they maybe shouldn’t have any technology

From age 3 - 6 1 hour but very supervised and controlled.

From 6 - 9 - 2 hrs but still very controlled and supervised.

What do you think about this? Is it realistic?

The art of connecting in real life. Is this being lost?

Learning to connect through social media is not the same as in person human connection. Hugs produce endorphins which make us feel good and this is a physical touch that we cannot get over the phone/computer screen. Humans are designed for connection and having 100’s of friends online is not the same as having friends in person. How do we learn to properly read each other in social situations? Or pick up on the energy of others? These are all social cues that we cannot fully pick up through online interactions.

How many times has a text message or email been misinterpreted because the person receiving it cannot read the body cues of the sender? That can then cause someone to jump to conclusions and create unnecessary drama whereas a phone call or in person meet up is better as you can read the person’s body language and get the vibe from them. Children are our future and it is wise to teach them how to interact with others in person to create better relationships for them and ultimately, our society.