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Parents Distracted By Smartphones Ignore Their Kids

Distracted ParentingBy Brad Broker

Usually, it’s the kid who gets in trouble for playing with their i-device at the dinner table.  But how about Mom and Dad?  How does smartphone use by parents affect interactions with their children?

In a first-of-its-kind study published in Pediatrics, researchers analyzed how parents or other caregivers use mobile devices around children and how that use impacts relationships. “We chose to observe caregivers and children during meals because this is a daily routine in which face-to-face caregiver–child interactions are considered beneficial,” said the researchers from Boston University Medical Center.

They observed 55 caregivers eating with at least one child in fast-food restaurants.  Forty of those caregivers used a mobile device during the meal.  Researchers were most concerned with the level of absorption, which they defined as the “extent to which the primary focus of the caregiver’s attention and engagement was with the device rather than the child.”

Of the caregivers with smartphones, most of them used the devices throughout the meal and seemed to have more engagement with their phone than the child.  Researchers took notes during the observations.  Some of their comments included:

  • “Many caregivers used the device almost continuously throughout the meal, eating and talking while looking at the device or only putting it down briefly to engage in other activities.
  • Caregiver looks up occasionally to grab a French fry or quickly say something to the girl and then continues to do something on her phone.
  • Female caregiver is holding the baby in her lap and is staring at her cell phone.
  • There is no conversation. Caregiver appears to be typing into phone, holding it about 10 inches away from her face, looking into it for long stretches during which she does not look up.”

A 2011 study published in Pediatrics advised physicians to tell their patients about the benefits of actively engaging their children during meals.  When parents and kids eat meals together at least three times per week, benefits “include a reduction in the odds for overweight, eating unhealthy foods, and disordered eating and an increase in the odds for eating healthy foods.”

In the current study, it was common for children to act out to get the attention of the distracted parent and equally common for the parent to ignore the needs of the kids.  “Caregivers absorbed in devices frequently ignored the child’s behavior for a while and then reacted with a scolding tone of voice,” said the authors.

Such inattention could lead to potentially dangerous situations.  “It may be that children can perceive the inattention and take more risk,” Dr. David Schwebel, a psychologist at the University of Alabama, told the Wall Street Journal during a previous study of texting and distracted parenting.

One of the positive observations showed enjoyment by caregiver and child when they shared information or entertainment on the mobile device.  While no definitive conclusions were made from the observations, the researchers said that this analysis was “an important first step in the study of how device technology affects the daily interactions that are so important to child development.”

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