Are you using your mobile device too much around your child?

Let’s confess. Most of us are secretly in love with our mobile devices.  What started out as a convenience – being able to make phone calls anytime or using a laptop to stay connected  to work – has now invaded every part of our lives. And why not? There are so many terrific devices from which to choose. Our old flip-phones are now “smart”, our laptops have shrunken into mini tablets, and we can get the latest edition of the paper or books on our e-readers.

So what’s the problem?  In many ways, technology has made our lives easier. But, there’s a price to pay for always “being connected” and all too often that cost takes its toll on our most intimate relationships, the ones we have with our children. For instance, have you found yourself spending “just a little more time” checking email when at the playground or responding to a text from the office during a birthday party?

A study released online today in Pediatrics gives us a glimpse of this impact by the examining patterns of mobile device use by caregivers and children during meals in fast food restaurants. Researchers from Boston University Medical Center designed the study to generate sound scientific hypotheses about its effect on caregiver-child interactions for future studies. Little research has been done on this topic so far.

The research team anonymously observed 55 interactions in 15 neighborhoods in the Boston area with median incomes ranging from $45,000 to $110,000. The majority of caregivers-child groups observed had one caregiver and anywhere from one to three children. Most of the children appeared to be of school age and the length of the meal observation ranged from 10 to 40 minutes.

During the meal, they took detailed notes on the frequency of use, duration of use, child calls for attention, and caregiver responses during use. Of the 55 groups observed, only 15 did not use a device at any time during the meal. The degree of usage by the remaining 40 groups ranged from brief interactions to almost continuous use throughout the meal, eating and talking while looking at the device, or only putting it down briefly to engage in other activities.

Not surprisingly, the highest degree of caregiver absorption was evidenced by responses such as: the parents’ attention being directed primarily at the device, keeping their eyes on the device while answering questions or giving instructions, waiting to respond to the child, or not responding at all

How did the kids respond and caregivers manage this behavior? Some school-aged children were already engaged in eating, talking to another child, or playing with toy and did not appear to change their behavior based on caregiver use, especially if the use was brief.

When caregivers were continuously absorbed in the device, some children did not try to get the adult’s attention, but many began to exhibit limit-testing or provocative behaviors. In this case, many caregivers used a scolding tone of voice, seemed insensitive to the child’s expressed needs, or used physical responses. One parent kicked a child under the table and another pushed a child’s hand away when he tried repeatedly to lift her face up from the device.

You don’t have to be a child development expert or an anthropologist to see that this study exposes some serious issues concerning parents’ overuse of mobile technology  and its impact on their children. In some cases, parents were physically near their children, but emotionally miles apart. In other situations, it lead to abusive behaviors by parents, and in many cases, it sent a very potent message to the children: that they are less worthy of their parents’ time, attention, and love than something or somebody else.

The study's lead author Jenny Radesky, MD, fully acknowledges that this is a limited research project and commented, “It is a complicated topic to study, which is probably why it hasn’t been studied to date. Mobile device use is more difficult to measure than traditional media because devices can be used in so many different ways and are instantly accessible.” 

Radesky’s intent was to raise questions, not find answers. Her goal was to break the ice, take the plunge and begin the long overdue, but critically important progress of fully researching this fast-growing problem affecting more and more children and families every single day. She did just that! 


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