A few years ago, I was struck by a study of Disney parks: the company had hired a team of analysts to figure out what kids found most absorbing about their theme park. Was it Mickey and Minnie? Cinderella’s castle? Space Mountain?
No. It was their parents’ mobile phones. Because the parents were always staring at them, the kids wanted to as well – even surrounded by spinning teacups, growling pirates, and giant mice. There was a noisy, colorful world going on around them – but both parents and children were mainly interested in the tiny, quiet world unfolding inside the glowing glass rectangle.
Today, more of us are more tethered to these devices, which in turn keep us tethered to work. The Economist has dubbed them “the fastest-selling gadgets in history.” The iPhone was only introduced in 2007, the BlackBerry in 1999, and
today, half the adult population owns a smartphone. That’s even higher in America, where nearly two-thirds of adults own one – roughly double the 2011 number. And we use them constantly – the average American spends over two hours on his or her smartphone every day. We check them first thing in the morning, last thing at night, on the toilet. One in ten of us even admits to using them while having sex.
These soaring rates of phone-usage coincide with a sharp decline in taking time off from work. Americans today take almost a week less of vacation, on average, than they did in 2000 – but prior to that year, American vacation time had been relatively stable.
By 2014, 42% of Americans were telling pollsters they had not taken a single day off in the past year. So while America has long been the only developed nation to not guarantee workers any paid time off, our elective status as No-Vacation Nation has been a relatively recent phenomenon.
And, just as at Disney World, our kids are noticing.
According to a new report from Project: Time Off, which surveyed a representative sample of over 700 kids between 8 and 14 years of age, and their parents, our always-on habits are reshaping our children’s lives. Three quarters of children surveyed said their parents don’t fully disconnect from work when at home, and over 80% of kids have noticed their parents bringing work stress home with them. (Project: Time Off is an initiative funded in large part by the U.S. Travel Association, which is naturally concerned about what all this overwork is doing to the travel industry.)
I spoke with Katie Denis, who wrote the report and is Senior Program Director at PTO, and she gave me some additional data from the survey that wasn’t in the final report. As she relayed via email, “Kids with parents who check in with work most days are more than twice as likely to say their parent comes home from work in a bad or very bad mood (20%) compared to kids with parents who never check in after hours (8%).” Parents who regularly check in with work after hours are also more likely to have stressed-out kids, by about 20 percentage points. About one in five kids say their parents do after-hours work from home almost every night.
And yet American parents are hardly neglecting their children: in fact, they’re spending more time with their kids today than they did in the 1960s. So what’s the problem?
Well, there’s longtitudinal, peer-reviewed research showing that the amount of time you spend with your kids doesn’t really matter. The old saw is true: it’s what you do with that time that counts. If you’re spending lots of time with your kids — but that time is spent parallel-playing in front of screens — it’s not going to have the same impact as a relaxed camping trip or casual board game.
But note: anxiously hovering around children as a sort of super-parent appears to be just as destructive as having bad work-life boundaries. It’s the stress that hurts children, not the cause of that stress, according to the same peer-reviewed study. This something the PTO report also noticed. “Kids notice their parents’ moods quite a bit,” Denis told me over the phone.
One particular thing kids also notice: when their parents miss important events. Nearly six in ten children said their parents had missed events like school plays, soccer games, and awards ceremonies – even major holidays – for work. A majority of the children (59%) were upset by their parents’ lack of presence in their lives and 58% “can detail the last activity their parents missed.”
On the one hand, a busy parent might point out that kids today seem to have an endless number of awards ceremonies and many schools don’t seem to make even a token effort to accommodate working parents’ schedules. But on the other, remember, it’s hardly like Americans are using all of their vacation time – or even close to all of it. In the PTO study, 39% of parents had unused time available, and 22% of all parents admitted it had been over a year since their last family vacation. In a different survey, 85% of people admitted they could easily take another day of vacation time to spend with their families.
Of course, it’s true that America has a more threadbare social safety net than many other developed, wealthy nations. There are parents in the U.S. who don’t have paid time off because they’re paid as contractors, working multiple part time jobs, or could be fired at will for staying home to take care of a sick kid. And there’s plenty of evidence that growing up in an economically insecure household is stressful for children and hurts their development.
But oddly, it seems like the parents who would theoretically have a measure of control over their work are the very ones struggling the most with overwork. Joan C. Williams and Heather Boushey found in a comprehensive 2010 report that Americans worked an average of 11 more hours per week in 2006 than they did in 1979 – which adds up to the equivalent of roughly three extra weeks of work per year. Moreover, they found a divergence in how those hours are allocated – the hours of the highest earners went up, while the hours of low-income Americans dropped. “What our data analysis shows is what scholars call the ‘time divide,’” they write. “In the United States today, many higher earners fervently want fewer hours, while many low-wage workers can find only part-time work, or none at all.”
A different PTO study found, similarly, that while most employees have little trouble taking time off, senior managers struggle much more to stay away from work when they take on vacation:
There are many reasons professionals struggle with this, some more psychological than economic, but the impact is clear: it’s causing stress and burnout, both at work and at home, and moving up the ladder doesn’t solve the problem. I’m not sure we know, yet, what will happen when leaders think it’s normal to work all the time, but we may be in the process of finding out. That’s a problem for organizations – and for parents.
“What worries me the most,” Denis told me, “Is we’re not only telling kids that working all the time is acceptable behavior, we’re creating a new norm. And if that’s the case, our kids are going to think it’s OK — and it’s only going to get worse.”
Here’s the rub. Kids don’t want an all-expenses paid trip to Belize. In fact, the most popular activity the kids in the PTO survey mentioned was a parent simply joining their school field trip. As one 11-year old girl put, it, “It doesn’t matter what we’re doing, it only matters that we’re having fun.” Simple gestures had a huge impact on children’s wellbeing. While only 19% of the kids in the survey said that they’re typically in a good mood on an average day, on days their parents took time off to spend with them that number shot up to 60%.
So don’t let the dark numbers in these studies stress you out even more. Just put down your phone and make something happen. It doesn’t have to be amazing. It just has to be something. “If you don’t carve out that time,” says Denis, herself a parent, “You don’t get it back.”