When Smartphone Is Near, Parenting May Falter03/10/14
MONDAY, March 10, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Mealtime is supposed
to be family time, but a new study suggests that ever-present
smartphones are impeding parent-child communication at the
Researchers who observed more than 50 family-type groups eating
out found a significant number of adults were preoccupied with
"We know from decades of research that face-to-face interactions are important for cognitive, language and emotional development. Before mobile devices existed, mealtime would've been a time where we would've seen those interactions," said study author Dr. Jenny Radesky, a fellow in developmental-behavioral pediatrics at Boston Medical Center.
It's unclear how much of an impact parents' smartphone use will
ultimately have on a child's development, and whether that effect
will have a negative, positive or neutral impact, said the
One basic thing that may be affected is child vocabulary, said
Dr. Rahil Briggs, director of pediatric behavioral health services
at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. "The single most
powerful predictor of a child's vocabulary is conversations with
the child. Dinnertime is an important time for those conversations,
and if you're absorbed with your phone, that's a lost
Briggs added that social, emotional and conversational skills
might also be affected if parents spend too much time looking at
their phones and other media.
"What really concerned me was those children who appeared to accept this lack of engagement. It seemed like they'd given up," noted Briggs, who wasn't involved with the research.
To capture a snapshot of how parents use their phones around
their children at mealtime, Radesky and her colleagues visited
Boston-area fast food restaurants and observed groups that included
at least one adult and one or more children who looked younger than
10. They took detailed notes on how caregivers -- which likely
included parents, grandparents and babysitters -- used their
smartphones and how children responded.
They conducted 55 observations last summer. Forty caregivers
took out their phones at some point during the meal. A few kept it
on the table, but didn't appear to use it. Another small group kept
their phones in their hands while doing other things.
The largest group -- 16 caregivers -- seemed totally absorbed by
their phones, using them continuously, even eating and talking
while looking at the phone. In most cases, it appeared the
caregivers were using the phones' keyboards or making swiping
motions on the phones rather than making phone calls.
Another nine caregivers used their devices intermittently, and
then put the phone away. The researchers said these caregivers
appeared to balance use of the device and paying attention to the
child or children.
While the adults used their phones, some school-aged children
were busy eating, talking to another child or playing with the toy
that came with their meal, and didn't seem concerned that the
caregiver was on a device, especially if it was for a short period
When caregivers were completely absorbed with their phones, some
children just seemed to accept it. However, many other children
started acting up in an attempt to garner the caregivers'
Some of these caregivers appeared to ignore the child's behavior
for a bit and then scolded them, sometimes without even looking up
from the phone.
"Children are going to get X amount of your attention every day. Your best bet is to give that attention in a positive way, or they may start to seek it in a negative way," said Briggs.
This is an emerging and important field of study, she added.
"We're just learning how to think about exposure to media in small
children, and now parents are being distracted by their phones. We
can't turn a blind eye to this present absence," she said.
Radesky and Briggs agreed that smartphone use isn't all bad.
Sharing apps and games with kids can be a way to connect. And
smartphones certainly won't be going away anytime soon.
"They're an essential tool. What we need to do is help build guidelines for the healthiest ways to use them," said Radesky. "It's important for parents to have 'off' time where they tune in only to their child."
Briggs supports a balanced approach. "My take on tech use for
parents and children is everything in moderation," she said.
For more about media use and children see the
American Academy of Pediatrics.
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