05/10/2012 10:08 am ET Updated May 24, 2012

Parent Coach: Am I Spending Too Much Time Online?

Dear Susan,

My baby is 15 months old, and because my husband works long hours, I'm alone with her from morning till night. My mother and mother-in-law both criticize me for being on my cell phone and computer a lot, but I think they're just not used to these things. Is there anything wrong with having a lifeline to the outside world when I'm with my baby all day long?

Too Much Tech?

Dear Too Much Tech?,

These days, we are all trying to manage the constant pull of digital media in every corner of our daily lives. You are not alone as you struggle to figure out what is and isn't appropriate. And in fact, there is no right answer to your question. We each have to decide for ourselves where to draw the line in terms of sending one more text, posting one more Facebook update, or clicking on one more link.

The challenge we're facing is this: The digital world has a powerful appeal, and a tremendous potential for triggering addictive behavior. There's always something new going on, whether it's your favorite celebrity sending out another tweet or your cousin sending yet another link to a cute kitty video. Given the multitude of screens -- computers, smartphones, tablets and so on -- most of us are never far from a device that will “plug us in.”

The question I believe parents need to ask -- and answer honestly -- is this: what message does a child receive when, in the middle of a story about something that happened in nursery school, mommy holds up a finger to say, “Hold on, honey” while she replies to a text?

I understand how hard it can be to spend hours on end with a child. The chance to connect with friends or find something stimulating online offers relief from an endless string of child-focused activities and tasks.

But consider the impact on your baby when your ability to be present with her -- really giving her 100% of your attention -- is constantly diluted by an invisible intruder: that beep, bong or bell announcing that someone else, somewhere out in cyberspace, is engaging your attention.

In addition -- and I'll be addressing this in future articles -- we must consider the effect our constant use of screens is having on our children as they learn to manage (or mismanage) their own use of these devices. How can we, in good conscience, insist that our 14-year old read a book instead of going on the computer, when we ourselves are glued to ours?

Children learn by watching us. If we want them to interact with the world around them, rather than the cyber-world, they need to see us engaging in activities that broaden our horizons and keep us grounded in the real world. If we want our kids to ignore the beckoning of their friends' endless text messages as the family sits down for a meal together, we have to show them what it looks like to turn our phones off! If we want them to grow into adults who can have meaningful relationships, we need to let them observe us giving people, including them, our undivided attention.

No one likes to be criticized, and there are probably kinder ways for your mother and mother-in-law to share their unsolicited feedback. But you may want to consider whether there is some truth behind their concern. It's a constant effort to strike a balance between enjoying the many benefits offered by our digital devices, and finding a way to live life unplugged, even -- and especially -- when we're feeling isolated, as you are.

Perhaps you can break up your day by joining a mommy-and-me group. Try getting out to a park where you have a chance to socialize with other parents -- in person. You may want to swap child care with another parent so you can get out of the house to engage in something that's interesting for you, and isn't child-centered -- like a dance class, a book club or a weekly cycling group.

This question of how much is too much screen time will most likely generate a great deal of debate as we all look for ways to live our lives in the real world, while incorporating the many benefits of the digital one. I look forward to hearing from readers on this topic, as we learn to create the balance we need to live healthy and happy lives in today's world.

Yours in parenting support,

Parent Coach, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and credentialed teacher. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.