Kids are starting a revolution to get their parents to put down their phones

“Play with ME, not your cell phones!”
“Play with ME, not your cell phones!”
Image: AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Like many seven-year-olds, Emil Rustige gets ticked off when his parents pay attention to their phones instead of him. But unlike other kids, Emil decided to take the issue to the streets.

With the help of his parents, Rustige organized a demonstration on Sept. 8th in his hometown of Hamburg, Germany, with 150 people joining him to encourage parents to put down their phones.

The slogan for the demonstration: ”Play with ME, not with your cell phones!”


As parents panic over how to pry seemingly addictive digital devices away from their children, children are starting a bit of a counterrevolution—insisting their parents get a grip on their own tech obsessions. In a recent US survey about teens’ social media habits, for example, 33% of nearly 1,000 respondents between the ages of 13 and 17 said they wished their parents would get off their devices.

“They are bothered by their friends and parents being on social media,” says Ron Dahl, director of the Center on the Developing Adolescent at the University of California, Berkeley. “They see and feel like they are not being paid attention, and they probably don’t recognize that they do that, too.”

Indeed, the youth revolution may be a bit lacking in self-awareness. The same survey found that 16% of teens report using social media “almost constantly,” and another 22% say they use it several times an hour. Still, the fact that both young children and teenagers are complaining about distracted adults sheds light on an often-ignored problem. Parents are just as subject to the lure of social media and smartphones as their children—and when they give in, their kids tend to miss them.

What science says about technology and parenting

Jenny Radesky, a pediatrician at the University of Michigan Medical School, studies the effect of technology on relationships between parents and children. According to a paper she published in Pediatric Research with Brandon T. McDaniel of Illinois State University, the more parents reported instances of “technoference”—technological devices interfering with social interactions—the more behavioral problems their kids had. The causation was not clear: either parents turn to tech as a form of escapism from children’s issues, or parents steeped in tech have kids who are more likely to misbehave.

In the two-year study, which included 183 parents with a child under five years old, parents with high technology use were predictive of small but significant behavior problems in kids, with kids escalating being more hyperactive, easily frustrated, and having more temper tantrums. The study also found that parents may become less responsive to their children because digital distractions give parents less exposure to reading their children’s emotions. “Parents who frequently use mobile devices during parent-child activities showed lower understanding of their child’s mental states and intentions,” it concluded.

Conversely, bad behavior from kids resulted in adults turning to technology, potentially for stress relief, suggesting the potential for a nasty spiral: kids behave badly because they don’t get much attention, driving their parents to digital distraction, thus resulting in more bad behavior. The study notes: “Clinically, our results suggest that mobile devices and other digital technology are potentially serving stress-relieving purposes for parents, but at the same time potentially displacing opportunities for parent-child connection important to child health and development.”

Of course, parents may be more likely to lose themselves in social media because it’s all so new to them. Meanwhile, young people are already over Facebook, and seem to be showing some signs of some social media fatigue overall. The Guardian cited one survey of 9,000 slightly older internet users (18-24) from the research firmAmpere Analysis found that attitudes towards social media had changed a lot in two years. In 2016, 66% of young people agreed with the statement “social media is important to me,” compared to only 57% in 2018.  Meanwhile, social-media use among adults is surging: Among the 45-plus age bracket, the share who say they value social media has increased from 23% to 28% in the past year, according to the Ampere survey. (Note that self-reported survey responses are not always the most reliable.)

There may be an upside to all this parental distraction. Sherry Turkle, a professor in the Science, Technology and Society program at MIT and the author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, told Quartz that she is more hopeful for the next generation because of the undesirable example adults are setting for young people. “They know what it felt like to have parents who had no time for them and turned instead to their phones,” she said. “That sense of cost and loss, more than any notion of ‘discipline,’ is what I think is going to get us to another place.”

The pint-sized protester

Emil Rustige told the German press he got the idea for a demonstration from an anti-fascism protest he attended in May. He saw that he could take a stand, and suggested the idea to his parents, who decided to support him. His father, a 37-year-old pediatrician, registered the demonstration with the police. While the family didn’t think it would garner much attention, almost 400 people expressed interest on Facebook, and many German media outlets reported the story. 

Emil’s father, Martin Rustige, told Spiegel Online (link in German): “What Emil is reproaching me for is those moments when he’s with me and is perhaps communicating with me and I’m completely absent and doing something else.”

“I don’t like it that my dad is always playing around with his phone,” six-year-old Ylvi Schmitt, who was at the protest, told Frankfurter Allgemeiner Zeitung (link in German). Her father admitted that he needed to “take a good look at himself.”

As with many other countries, tech addiction is a hot topic in Germany. Media outlets and commentators have honed in on the damage parents can inflict on their kids by being glued to their smartphones—from accidents that happen when parents aren’t paying attention to negatively influencing children’s development. ”If parents do not respond to their children’s eye contact, there are research studies that show that children react with physical and hormonal stress,” psychologist Catarina Katzer told public broadcaster (link in German) Mitteldeutsche Rundfunk.

In January 2017, the Youth and Family Office in the town of Augsburg, Bavaria, ran a “Talk to your child!” poster campaign urging parents to put their phones away and give their children eye contact and ample attention.

While it is easy to imagine that Emil’s protest is a publicity stunt straight from his social-media-savvy parents, his father was quick to point out the whole thing doesn’t exactly make them look good. “I’m the one who will be at the back of the demonstration—with my head bowed, because I’m the one he complains about,” he told Der Spiegel.