Parental Phubbing Leaves Kids Feeling Ignored and May Increase Depression

drawing of dad looking at his phone with daughter leaving in the background

Verywell / Theresa Chiechi

Key Takeaways

  • Almost 70% of parents say their cellphones distract them while they are spending time with their children.
  • When kids feel ignored, they can feel lonely, rejected, or depressed.
  • Parents can put their cellphones in a different room or turn off notifications to prevent a distraction from quality time with their kids.

Almost 70% of parents say they feel distracted by their cellphone when they spend time with their kids. Parental phubbing, when a parent ignores their child while using their mobile phone, is a problem for kids and moms and dads. Experts say using cell phones isn’t the issue; rather, it’s how parents use them.

“I think the big question here is…are parents giving undivided attention when their kids need it? Or are they shooing them away more than usual? It happens to everybody sometimes. The key is how much,” explains Mary Alvord, PhD, co-author of Conquer Negative Thinking for Teens.

Cellphone usage is a societal norm. A whopping 97% of Americans own cellphones of some type. With their widespread usage, it can create a challenge for parents to tear themselves away.

Mary Alvord, PhD

Are parents giving undivided attention when their kids need it? Or are they shooing them away more than usual? It happens to everybody sometimes. The key is how much.

— Mary Alvord, PhD

“Parents rely on the convenience of smartphones (i.e., alarms, book reading, scheduling, news, social connections, etc.), thus creating a sense of dependence. In fact, we often hear parents’ comment that they ‘can’t go anywhere’ without their phone,” notes Felice Martin, MS, NCC, LPC, CPCS, NeuroCoach+ NeuroLeader, Behavioral Health Associates of Georgia, LLC.

Cellphones are convenient and helpful in today’s fast-paced society. But when parental phubbing causes parents to ignore or miss the needs of their children, it’s important to recognize the problem and seek practical solutions to give kids the attention they need.

Kids and Parental Phubbing

Children require parents’ love and care. Studies show that children raised in supportive environments are more likely to thrive. That support includes parents’ attention.

Realistically, parents can’t provide a listening ear to their child 24 hours a day. That makes it even more important that when they have time together, parents are engaged and focused on their child. When kids believe their parents are ignoring them, the hurt they feel is very real.

Felice Martin, LPC

Phubbing can make a child feel inadequate, lonely, rejected, and dismissed.... [C]hildren become anxious or depressed when ignored. 

— Felice Martin, LPC

“The pain of being ignored is experienced both somatically (physically) and psychologically. The brain does not distinguish pain, it just tells the body and mind, ‘I’m hurt’,” Martin notes. “Phubbing can make a child feel inadequate, lonely, rejected, and dismissed. Researchers have found that children become anxious or depressed when ignored. He or she may think they are insignificant.”

Often, kids act out to get the attention they are craving.

“When children begin to think this way, they often isolate. They will also overcompensate negatively or positively to get any type of attention,” Martin adds.       

Research shows that when parents favor their phone over listening to their children, it can even accelerate feelings of depression. Children who feel emotionally neglected may struggle with anxiety, poor grades in school, substance abuse, and even suicidal tendencies.

In addition to the risk of kids seeking attention in other ways, they may also begin to emulate their parents’ behavior. Parents have to be aware of their phone usage and the message they are sending.

“Parents are their child’s first teachers…It is important that parents manage their mental health,” notes Martin. “Often parents will use their phone as a distraction to cope with life stressors.”

Practical Solutions

People check their cell phones about 60 times per day, on average. So, the continued and persistent use of cell phones is here to stay. But experts say there are safeguards that parents can put in place to ensure they are giving kids the quality time they need. 

Though this one is fairly obvious, it’s an important one. Get off your phone when you’re spending quality time with your children.

“You need to put that phone down, especially with teens. When they are willing to talk to you…you need to give them undivided attention. This means you may need to put the phone in a different room,” Dr. Alvord states.

Parents can also put their phones on Do Not Disturb or silence their ringers. Since studies show that hearing a phone notification is a major distraction, removing that sound can help parents focus on what’s in front of them—their children.

Another option is setting up phone-free zones. Having a basket where everyone puts their phones before sitting down to dinner ensures a lot less interruptions. The phones are put away for family night and other agreed-upon pockets of time.

No-phone spaces in the household are also an option. When family members want quality time together, they know that this special room is a safe space without the interruption of phones.

Parents can also consider setting a timer for their phone usage. Let kids know that in an hour, they’ll receive uninterrupted time with you. It can be an incentive for them, as well as for mom and dad.

The reality is, it’s critical to implement ways to successfully live with phones while not diminishing the importance of family members.

“We can’t escape the digital age; however, we can manage how we engage with the digital age. I encourage parents to put their phones down when communicating with their children. Eye contact matters and lets the child know they are valued,” Martin concludes.

What This Means For You

Cellphones are an important part of our lives. We manage our schedules, check the weather, and stay connected with our devices. But using phones is not a replacement for face-to-face quality time, especially with our children. It’s critical for parents to regulate their phone usage, so that their kids receive the love and attention they deserve.


7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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