Podcast 023: How to Stop Looking at Your Phone So Much–and Why It Matters with Dr. Katie Penry
Listen to the episode and see full show notes here.
Rachel Nielson: Do you remember life before smartphones? Of course you do, because it wasn’t that long ago. It’s kind of hard to believe that it’s only been about ten years since the first iPhone was released because now smart phones are just everywhere. For better and for worse, these devices have changed the way we do life—the way we work, the way we communicate with others, the way we interact (or don’t interact) with the people around us.
I remember my first friend who owned an iPhone. I remember it because it was so unusual at the time, and it was a little bizarre to me how glued he was to that thing. I mean, he would sometimes even scroll on it while his real-life friends were in the room with him!
I am laughing because that is so normal now. I’m sad to admit that what seemed bizarre and a little rude to me eight years ago, is now what I catch myself doing. And actually, I probably do it way more often and for much longer lengths of time than my friend did—because back then, there wasn’t even social media!
So, I am the first person to admit that I have a problem with this. I am too addicted to my phone. And I don’t want to be. Especially, especially, within my role as a mother—it makes me feel a little sick when I realize that I am choosing my phone over interactions with my children. It makes me worried about what I am modeling for them. It makes me want to change.
So you can imagine how excited I was when I found out that one of my favorite people to follow on Instagram has a free 7-day course called the “Look Up Challenge.” It is a series of emails and videos which are quick and easy to watch, but are packed with really practical ideas for how we can put down our phones and engage more with our kids.
And this isn’t just any old mom who put together this email course (not that I’m knocking that—I am just any old mom and I started this podcast)—but the Look Up Challenge was actually put together by Dr. Katie Penry, a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in women and infant mental health. She is also a mother of two young children who is hilarious, real, crazy smart, and she has the best southern accent I’ve ever heard.
I cant wait for her to hear from her today. I think you’re going to be fascinated by this interview and the research she presents and be motivated to change your habits in sustainable ways, so with no further ado, here it is!
Rachel Nielson: Dr Katie Penry, welcome to the podcast.
Dr. Katie Penry: Hello!
Rachel Nielson: Hi! I’m so glad we finally connected. We’ve gone back and forth on social media for quite some time now.
Dr. Katie Penry: I know, I’m such a huge fan of your practical love for mothers. I think we share that.
Rachel Nielson: Yes, I think we do too. Since I started following you, I’ve just been so impressed because you’re a young mom like me–our kids are actually similar ages–but you have this huge body of knowledge about human and social development and the brain. I’m like, this lady is a boss!
Dr. Katie Penry: For better or for worse, right? Like whenever you’re parenting, you’re kind of always aware of something in the background.
Rachel Nielson: Yes, yes. That’s probably true. But I also just love how you deliver it in such a fun and deliverable way and I’m excited to have you on.
Dr. Katie Penry: So the instagram account you’re talking about is called A Friendly Affair, which is an extension of my website. Trying to make women engage with their children and really love doing it in really practical ways is really fun for me so I’m glad you’re enjoying it. I always really love interacting with you too.
Rachel Nielson: And you have a lot on there about books which I love because I am a former high school teacher. And how to use books to connect with your little ones so I love that focus that you have.
Dr. Katie Penry: So if you go to my page, the 20,000 foot view looks like it’s all about kids lit but if you get in there, you can see the reason I am presenting kids lit was just because I needed to find an easy way to make engagement with your kids really practical. And for me, that was just picture books. I can talk about a picture book and say “go check this out at your library and here are the questions you can ask and ways you can really use this picture book to build empathy or joy or connection. So, I am happy you enjoy the kids lit. I’ve really become passionate about it and fallen in love with kids lit since starting A Friendly Affair. At first, it was just a tool. Now it is just awesome!
Rachel Nielson: I’ve heard you talk quite a bit about the importance of putting down our phones and looking up and engaging with our little ones. And I feel like as moms, we know that this is important and we have sort of an uneasy feeling like “this probably isn’t good for my kids” when we’re on our phones too much, but we don’t necessarily know why. And that’s why I’ve loved following you because you have this data and research that’s made me really get serious about wanting to change my behavior. So I was wondering if we could start off by you telling us: why does this even matter? This is hard work to learn to put down our phones and to kind of go against the cultural norm of always being on our phones and staring at our phones. Why should we do this for our kids?
Dr. Katie Penry: Oh man, I love this question. This is the question that I’m always like hoping and praying any person will ask me, even in the grocery store, because I kind of feel like I could break into song and dance whenever I hear it, because it is so critical. Almost 80% of your child’s brain development occurs in the first three years of life, and that development occurs in the context of consistent verbal and nonverbal interaction with your child. So I look at “The Lookup Challenge” really as just one of the biggest investments in your child’s brain growth and development that you can make–because your child is actually laying the neurological foundation for empathy, self-esteem, communication, language, all of these things that we really hope and want for our children.
Healthy social and emotional development is not just a given. Our kid is, assuming that we feed them, pretty much going to grow in height but social and emotional development is really not that way. And I think that many women for centuries and centuries and centuries, what our children needed was just second nature, right? It’s mutually beneficial: We enjoy looking at our babies in the face; they enjoy looking at us. These are the things that are really, really good for your child, right? Just looking at your baby…attuning to who they are, what they love, reacting, giving them something to react to, reacting to what they give you. This is a thing that Harvard psychologists call “serve and return,” and it’s so critical. And it is crazy when you really get into the literature that we are having to break this down into steps now, what this looks like, right? Because cell phones have really changed and taken away so much of what is originally instinctual for a woman if she is just not distracted.
Rachel Nielson: So the key to this brain development in babies is simply looking their primary caregiver in the eye?
Dr. Katie Penry: Yes, absolutely. It is huge. Your child is really using your face–and this is not a joke!–to figure out that they are a person. So a baby really uses its mother’s face to learn that they can regulate their emotions, be less distracted, manage their affective experience, just from their mother’s facial expression and the way that a mother regulates her baby with her face and reactions. That is something that the baby internalizes. Neurological connections are really being made in that eye-to-eye synchronization.
Rachel Nielson: Wow. And like you talked about, in all the previous generations, this was so instinctual. Women didn’t really have a lot of options to distract them from that, like when they were nursing or eating. But now, now that’s different.
Dr. Katie Penry: Exactly. Daniel Stern, he’s this incredible psychologist. He studied how much a baby is actually looking at his mother, and it is like 70-80% of the time your baby is alert, he is looking at you. So if you’re looking at your phone, not only are you denying your child your gaze, you’re actually modeling something–something kind of confusing for the infant. Let me tell you this, Rachel…this is one of my most favorite facts in the whole world: So your baby is born able to see the exact distance from the bio mom’s eye to nipple. If it’s 10 inches for you or 10.5 inches, I don’t know what it is– that is the exact distance that your child is wired to see. In other words, whenever the baby is created, it is created to connect with you in your eyes. Your baby learns that it is seen and seeable while breastfeeding, right there.
Rachel Nielson: That is incredible. So obviously this is extremely important, and the focus of your work is with infants because so much of that development happens from zero to three years old. But all of what you teach could really apply to children who are older as well and it’s so important to give them our faces as well.
Dr. Katie Penry: Yes, absolutely. Parents actually act as mirrors for their children. They learn who they are in the reflection of another person’s watchful gaze. So you can kind of think of your child really as performing. A lot of the time their play is a performance. You would never look at your phone during your child’s piano recital, but if you go to a playground this afternoon, almost all of the women will be looking at their phone. And their children will still be referencing them seven to eight times every five minutes, and they will not be receiving a loving witness. Their play is a performance. They are learning that this matters–that I am seeable, that I am worth celebrating! They are developing social skills and self esteem, self efficacy, and then as they age–I mean, back to modeling!–we are so shocked that our teenagers are really going to their phones to find themselves when we have raised them basically looking at them through the phone.
I think I said this a while ago, maybe on one of my Instagram Stories, that I had just come back from the park, and there was this mother there, and she was so sweet and really enjoying being with her kid. And her kid was really enjoying being with her. The daughter was maybe two, and there’s this big slide at my park, and I could tell this is the first time the daughter was really going to get up the gumption and do it. So the mother pulls out the phone and is going to record it. And even though the mother is celebrating and attuned to the child’s affect, she actually isn’t looking at the child in the face and the eyes. She is actually looking at the phone, which is recording the child.
So you can imagine how as a child ages, they’re going to kind of wonder if everything worth celebrating about me is in the phone. We can’t keep looking at our kids in their big moments of celebration through our phones and then wonder why our kids are looking at the phone to find themselves. We’ve taught them that you’re here, you’re here more than your with–I’m pointing to my hand like it’s a phone–you’re in this device more than you’re really in this moment with me. Okay. Do you see what I’m saying? So yeah, this matters definitely as they age.
That’s why one of the big pushes on A Friendly Affair that I do every holiday is planning your pictures. Just sitting down before an event, a birthday, a holiday and saying, “These are the pictures that I really want, and then I’m going to put my phone away.” So you can say, “Okay, well I’ve got a picture of each of my kids opening this present; I got a picture of all of our family together; and I got a picture of them in their new PJs”. Say those are the really important pictures for you. And then you put your phone away so that you can actually provide your children with that loving witness during their moments of celebration and during their memories. Make sure you are not implanting into them a memory of being watched through a phone during their big moments of celebration. You’re freeing them by doing that. You’re kind of freeing them to be present in the moment and not going to their phone to find themselves.
Rachel Nielson: That’s such a great practical tip about holidays. And I do want to get more into your practical tips because you have so many. That’s something else I love about your work: you are like a young hip mom, and you use your phone, you know. I’ve heard you say whenever anybody gets rid of a smartphone, “Have they never seen how amazing Snapchat filters are?”
Dr. Katie Penry: [laughing] Yeah, exactly. If you haven’t shown your two-year-old a Snapchat filter, you know what I mean? Like, that is so much fun.
Rachel Nielson: Yeah. So I feel like you’re not saying, “These things are the devil, throw them in the trash can!” You have such practical ways of controlling it and having a phone but also giving our kids what they really need. So let’s just start with your first takeaway for how can we do this? How can we look up and be more present with our kids?
Dr. Katie Penry: Okay. Yes. So going back then, I love what you just said. That is such a great point, and that’s a really great jumping off point. But I want to say it again: Your phone is not the devil. I felt like you guys need to hear me say it because I just basically told you that you’re going to ruin your children if you look at your phone. [laughing] Your phone is not the devil. In fact, your phone is really a source of good. There are ways that you can really create good community. I mean, the first three years of your child’s life are very isolating. Am I right? And Instagram…I don’t know if you ever surf Instagram hashtags, Rachel, but you know, get on there like #momstomomsglobal or whatever, and it’s like all these women just supporting each other. So I’m going to say, you need these things, and that’s okay to need these things. Let’s just figure out how to do it.
So my first takeaway is, rather than focusing on the minutes and hours you spend on your phone, focus on maintaining sacred spaces. So a lot of adults, whenever they decide that they want to do a digital detox, they say, “Well, I’m only gonna look at my phone 30 minutes today, or two hours today, or five minutes an hour.” Okay, well this model really is not effective for adults and certainly not effective for new mothers and parents that are at home or primary caregivers–because your child might sleep for two hours, and heck, if you’ve done all of the chores you want to do, then that’s two hours that you might be able to make a friend, connect, learn something, study, read something that really brings you joy, on social media. And that’s okay!
The point is, rather than focusing on minutes and hours, let’s try to focus on presence and place. So what I want you to do is think about some tech free spaces that you can really put a hedge around. I’ll give you some, the top three I would say: I’m not going to use my phone while I’m breastfeeding; I’m not going to use my phone at the dinner table; and I’m not going to use my phone at the park. Just tech-free spaces rather than minutes and hours.
The American Pediatric Association came out saying that screen time must be limited because it is not good for a child’s brain. That is so true. But adults just tried to adapt that to themselves. Well, screen time isn’t impacting your neurology as far as we know, like it does your child. It certainly does impact your child’s neurology. They don’t need to have any screen exposure for the first two years of life, then very limited for the next two and as they age. But for you, we don’t need to adapt that rule to parenthood. That’s for children. We are trying to scream from the rooftops “just make some places sacred!”
Rachel Nielson: I love that. One thing that I’ve struggled with being a mom of young kids is feeling like there’s really no good time to be on my phone because they’re so little and they need so much from me, and if I don’t want to be on my phone during their alert time, then I’ll only do it after they’re in bed. But then I’m on my phone during that time when I could be connecting with my husband. So then I’m like, “I won’t do it then either.” And then I start to feel like, ‘I need the phone for this work that I’m doing with my podcast, as well as socially.’ And so if I’m saying I’ll never be on my phone when my kids are awake and aware of me, then when can I do it?
Dr. Katie Penry: Yes, that’s not practical either. So that leads into my second takeaway, which is telling your kids why you’re on your phone and what you’re doing. This actually limits passive phone use, which is really the problem here. It helps you be more intentional and also explains to your kids that I’m using this phone for a reason right now. I’m not choosing something over you, but I do have to work or I have to look up a recipe. Let me tell you what I tell my kids most of the time–“mama’s going to look at Pinterest for about five minutes. Can y’all go play? I need a recipe, like for real.” That’s probably my most frequent during after school hours. So your second takeaway would be to get in the habit of telling your kid(s) why you’re looking at your phone. You’ve got to look at your phone while they’re alert, especially as they age. Just tell them “you guys, I have to check my email right now because I’m expecting something” or “I’m going to look at my phone because so-and-so just messaged me, and we’ve been trying to get in touch with each other.” So just tell them what you’re doing.
Rachel Nielson: I also love what you said: It holds you accountable too. If you have to say it out loud, ‘I’m going to look at my phone because…I’m feeling stressed out and I want to mindlessly surf Instagram right now’ or ‘I’m going to check my phone because… I don’t know why I’m going to check the phone…because it’s a compulsive habit?” [laughing] So it kind of makes you think about why you’re going to do it.
Dr. Katie Penry: Exactly. Another awesome side effect is that if you take a week, if you just make yourself do this, by the end of that week every time you look at your phone, you’re going to have a bunch of little buzzards asking you why you’re looking at your phone. So you’re building in this alarm system for yourself. If you do fall back into aimless and mindless engagement with your phone during alert time, your kids are like, ‘why are you looking at your phone?’ And it makes you think, ‘what am I looking at here?’
Rachel Nielson: I love that idea of involving them.
Dr. Katie Penry: And in talking about distractions, that’s actually my third takeaway point, which is that you can actually use your phone to prevent distraction, rather than being just a constant source of distraction. So I really hope that all of you guys go to afriendlyaffair.com and click to sign up for the Lookup Challenge tomorrow. All of this is in there, plus so much more. And one of the things that I do is show you how to use your phone so that it has non-notification types. Do you know that you can set a calendar on your phone to turn off notifications during certain hours? So if you want to be alert from 3:30 to 5:30 every day with zero notifications, then you can set your phone to do that for you. That’s amazing. There’s so much that you can do just in the notification settings of your phone that really can help you kind of diminish some of the buzzing distractions.
Rachel Nielson: So it’s the phone itself can help be a tool to be more present.
Dr. Katie Penry: Right. You can even go a step further and put it into Do Not Disturb mode. I do this a lot, so my phone is set to go into Do Not Disturb mode at 3:30. And what that means is the only person that can call me are the people on my breakthrough list, which is something I can teach you how to set in the Lookup Challenge as well. So my mother, the preschool, my husband, or if somebody calls me two times in a row, it will buzz me and let me know that this is the second time they’ve called.
Rachel Nielson: That’s so great. One thing that you say in the Lookup Challenge that I thought was really interesting was that people will sometimes say, ‘what if someone needs me?’ From a psychologist’s standpoint, I loved what you pointed out about that question. Explain that to us.
Dr. Katie Penry: Whenever I tell people, ‘why don’t you put your phone on Do Not Disturb during these hours?’, they say, ‘what if somebody needs me?’ My question then is, ‘what if somebody doesn’t?’ I think that we want to believe that we are really more central and more important than we are. Sometimes I think that that’s part of it–that I’m not being needed and not being seen. Again, we are caught in a loop of trying to find a way to be seen because of the way our phones have shaped the world. If you’re not needed during those hours, that’s okay. You’re still seen, you’re still lovable, you’re still wonderful.
Rachel Nielson: The thing that question got me thinking about is ‘who really needs me?’ These kids that are here in front of me. They are right here and they need me. So that’s a powerful question I think to ask yourself. And it’s all still there–like if you miss a call, if you miss a text, it’s all stored in your phone. You can get to it later.
Dr. Katie Penry: Yes, it’s not like it just goes away.
Rachel Nielson: So there are probably some moms out there that are feeling some guilt about how they’ve done things with their children in the past. The good news is that it hasn’t been that long that phones have been around. So we have a chance to change the way this is going in our culture, in our society. But if there’s a mom listening and she’s thinking, I looked at my phone every time that I nursed and they’re worrying that they ruined their child, what would you say to those moms who may be feeling a little bit of guilt as they hear this?
Dr. Katie Penry: I would tell you that you have not ruined your child, that you can do the work. Start now, put your phone down, look at your kid in the eye, start reading to them more. I hear this a lot from people who take the Lookup Challenge, ‘I actually hadn’t really looked at my kid in the eye, like made eye contact with them in awhile.’ Just start doing it. You haven’t ruined your kid. Children are incredibly resilient. I had a child client who had a lobectomy at six years old, had half of his brain removed, and that kid by eight was pretty much normal. A child’s brain is incredibly resilient, constantly making connections. So sure, after three years old that connectivity is slowing down and you might have to kind of double up some of your efforts, but you certainly haven’t ruined them. There is no reason for you to feel shame. You’re here now. You’re listening to this awesome podcast. You want to be a great mom, and you have everything you need to do it. So just do it.
Rachel Nielson: Great. And as a reminder, what are those three practical steps that they can take this week or takeaways that they can do to start looking up and being more present with their kids?
Dr. Katie Penry: Okay, first: set some sacred spaces in places. Just let go of the minutes and hours paradigm. Second: Tell your kids what you’re doing when you’re looking at your phone, and third, get in there and examine your notifications. Is there something you can do to kind of set some Do Not Disturb hours and help that phone work for you?
Rachel Nielson: Thank you so much, Dr. Penry. We’re so grateful that someone with so much knowledge and impressive educational background would come on and teach us and hopefully we can have you come back another time and talk about other aspects of the parent/baby relationship and parent/child relationships. Thank you so much for coming on.
Dr. Katie Penry: Thanks Rachel. I really appreciate it. This has been a lot of fun. I hope I haven’t been too distracting with my Southern drawl.
Rachel Nielson: No, I love your Southern drawl. I have to say I’ve never met anyone from Alabama. And my favorite book is To Kill a Mockingbird. You sent me the link to the children’s book about To Kill a Mockingbird, which we immediately ordered and it’s one of my kids’ favorite books now.
Dr. Katie Penry: Alabama’s Spitfire? Yes. I love it too.
Rachel Nielson: Thanks so much for coming on.
Dr. Katie Penry: Thank you!
Rachel Nielson: Okay everybody, if you liked what you heard here and you’re feeling inspired, I hope that you will head over right now to Dr. Katie Penry’s website. Come and sign up for The Look Up Challenge which is just a 7-day email course with some videos to give you more ideas and doesn’t take very much time every day, just a couple of minutes. The link to her website and to that challenge is in the show notes for this episode and it’s also on my website 3in30podcast.com.
I wanted to leave you with some final thoughts from Dr. Katie Penry. After our interview, I couldn’t stop thinking about what she taught and I texted her with a follow-up question. I asked “Is it okay if people listen to podcasts and things on audio while they are feeding their babies, as long as their babies have their eyes?” She responded, and said “yes, that is a great option as long as you are not so into your podcast that you are ignoring your baby. The key is to always be attuning to the baby and reacting to when they react. Smiling at them, cooing when they coo, that sort of thing, to help them to recognize that they are seeable and seen and to develop those neurological connections.”
Another thing that I have learned from her that I want to share is that she says at the park, if you choose to not be on your phone and to watch your kids playing, she recognizes that that’s super boring. If you’re feeding and choosing not to do anything, you might be bored. So she has a hashtag and funny little phrase that she says–#boredandproud. So you can use that mantra with pride if you choose to do this Look-Up Challenge. When you’re sitting at the playground, feeling a little dull, you can think to yourself, “I am bored and proud because I am doing this for my kid.”
Thank you so much for being here and for listening. I hope you go check out those additional resources on A Friendly Affair and 3 in 30 Podcast. So look your kids in the eye this week and we hope that you have a great week with your family!