“My mother has become very attached to her phone over the last five years. Whenever we’re together, she’s often on her phone, usually scrolling through social media,” says Angela, 37, who declined to use her last name to avoid hurting her parents’ feelings. “It really only bothers me when my children are around because they’re often trying to get her attention, and she’s unaware they’re trying to get her attention because she’s on her phone.”
We asked more than 100 millennials and Gen Xers about their parents’ phone habits. Around half said their parents are good about not being on their phones too much and being present in the moment — frequently because they are not tech savvy or are still using flip phones.
The rest, however, are absorbed in their devices. They are playing Words with Friends, Candy Crush and card games, often with the volume turned up. They are looking at the news, checking sports scores, scrolling Facebook and texting. Some are even using them as actual phones.
“Phone calls are the worst,” says Richard Husk, a parent of two. “They will take a 45-plus-minute phone call with some random golf buddy while I am over with the kids trying to visit with them.”
Tyler McClure said his mom is on Facebook constantly and can’t do anything without her phone, while his dad “Googles the things he’s watching on television as he watches television.” Both parents are prone to staring at their phones instead of their grandchildren.
“My 75-year-old Vietnam vet dad, who once called smartphones ‘a time waster’ in 2009, today has his Bluetooth hearing-aid connected to his phone and his truck,” says McClure, who lives in Tennessee with his family. “Honestly, his iPhone may as well be a Borg implant the way he lives with it like a teenager.”
There can be a good reason for it
Not all screen time is the same. Sometimes the additional minutes spent staring is them figuring out the phone itself. Angela’s father is better about his screen time than her mom is, but he still takes 10 minutes to write each text message. (He signs them all, “XO.”)
“They’re spending more time on just looking at their phone just figuring out what they’re actually looking at,” says Abbie Richie, the founder and CEO of tech-support company Senior Savvy. “For the first couple of seconds, an older adult really needs to figure out what they’re seeing. They have to process it. Their time on the device is longer because of the processing required.”
The phone is also a tool for grandparents to connect with people in their lives. Many people we spoke to said their parents enjoy reading things out loud from their phones, telling their families or anyone nearby about the weather, the headlines or viral stories that may or may not be true.
Many grandparents may struggle to keep up physically or talk to their grandchildren. Emily Lakdawalla says her parents are pretty good about not using their phones in family situations, but her dad still does not interact much with the two grandkids, ages 13 and 16. “He just stands in the kitchen and smiles bemusedly at them,” she says.
Alex Ebens’ father uses his phone to help make a connection. “He’s physically not able to keep up with the kiddos so he takes them down YouTube rabbit holes, as much as I ask him not to,” says Ebens.
Kids, of course, can find screens more interesting than their older relatives. Doing things together on them is a way to bond.
They learned it from their own children
Everyone struggles with looking at their phones too much. It is likely grandparents picked up some of their habits from their own children and their children.
“The somewhat embarrassing reality is that they’re much better at not being distracted by their devices than my partner and I are,” says Lucas Mitchell, a dad of two from Vancouver. His parents use their iPhone and iPad frequently but are good at focusing on the family.
“You have to model the behavior you want them to have,” says Richie. “It’s almost like a boomer is using their phone as if they’re a 12-year-old who first got their phone and they’re screenager.”
Have a chat, buy them a smartwatch
Along with setting a good example, there are other ways family members can get their parents off the phone. Having a talk, without phones, is a good way to start, but it is not always easy.
“It’s an awkward subject,” says Richie. “You typically don’t have to think about parenting the grandparents.”
Having the conversations can set a good example to your own kids, showing them how to ask for the attention they need. (If you’re on your own phone a lot, this could backfire.)
Depending on your budget, buying them a smartwatch like the Apple Watch is another option. It lets users glance at incoming messages and news alerts without the danger of getting distracted by other apps on the phone. You can show them how to use screen-time tools on their devices. If they are not aware of the problem, a weekly report spelling out how many hours they spent scrolling might be a wake-up call.
You can also teach them to use “Do Not Disturb” modes so when they are playing with kids — whether it is kicking a ball or watching YouTube videos of professionals kicking balls — they are not going to be distracted.
Parents have also relied on their youngest, cutest family members to apply a touch of guilt. They will ask grandpa to put down his device for a while, or at least share it.
“My daughter has learned to entertain herself when she’s visiting,” says Andrea Button-Schnick, whose stepmother is either working or trading gossip about her small town on her phone. “But she enforces the rule that dinner time is no-phone-grandma time.”