By Brittany Patterson
We know Americans’ use of mobile gadgets has reached near ubiquitous status in our daily lives. Research shows our continued use has health effects on our skeletons, is changing they way we communicate, and even making walking less safe.
But a new study published Monday in Pediatrics quantifies for the first time yet another side effect of our technological obsession: Many of us are engrossed with our devices even when eating with our children.
Researchers anonymously watched 55 caregivers eating with one or more young children in fast food restaurants across different Boston neighborhoods and took copious notes. (They couldn’t call the caregivers “parents” because they were watching surreptitiously.) Researchers watched how often and for how long caregivers used devices during the meal — and if the children tried to get the caregiver’s attention. Their notes were independently analyzed and coded to identify common themes.
Dr. Jenny Radesky led the team of researchers, from Boston Medical Center.
“Like a lot of people I know, I was observing a lot of interesting behavior in public, parents using devices a lot and kids trying to get their attention,” Radesky said. “Their interactions were very fascinating to me.”
The team found that 40 of the 55 interactions involved use of a mobile device and the interactions varied. Some caregivers kept the device out, but on the table. Others spent the meal almost entirely engrossed in the screen. And there was everything in between. But overall the more engrossed the caregiver was with a device, the more likely he or she was to ignore the children. In some cases, researchers even observed parents getting physical with their little ones who vied for their attention. One adult woman kicked a child’s foot under the table and a second female caregiver pushed a young boy’s hands away when he repeatedly tried to lift her face up from her tablet.
The more absorbed a caregiver was, the more likely they were not to react to their children’s questions, speak to their children, or make eye contact.
Face-to-face interaction is often cited as an important component to child development because it is a foundation for learning language, learning how to regulate strong emotions, and developing empathy and social skills.
Radesky, who is also a pediatrician and worked for a time in Seattle, one of the technology hubs of the United States, said she became increasingly concerned with the effects of technology on the development of these skills in children.
“My concern is that it’s becoming such an obsessive habit that every time we have some downtime or a routine interaction we reach for our phones and we’re missing some fascinating interaction with our kids or maybe not even a fascinating one, but an interaction that their brains are wired to want from us,” she said.
The children, researchers observed, reacted to their unresponsive parents in different ways, in some cases accepting the lack of engagement and entertaining themselves — or in other cases becoming more and more disruptive hoping to recapture their caregiver’s attention.
As a parent herself with two young kids and a hyperactive email, Radesy said she is acutely aware that devices are woven into our daily lives. According to The Pew Research Internet Project, 91 percent of the American population owns a cell phone and nearly two-thirds of them use their device to go online.
“It’s not the purpose of this study to say not to use devices around our kids, because there is some good to their use,” she said citing evidence that technology can be an effective tool for education. “But what is now perhaps becoming a cultural or family norm doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a good thing.
Radesky said she hopes this study opens the door for continued research into the potential effects of device use and child development such as if device use relates to obesity.