You've seen — perhaps even been — that parent in the restaurant busily perusing your cellphone while your child waits for some attention. What does the tech distraction really mean for children — and the parents who love them?
That's a question that was burning in the minds of researchers at Boston University Medical Center when they decided to quietly watch caregivers with young children at fast-food restaurants in their area. They reported what they saw in the journal Pediatrics.
The researchers, led by pediatrician Dr. Jenny Radesky, watched 55 caregivers, mostly parents, who were dining with one or more children who appeared to be no more than 10 years old. And perhaps predictably they saw 44 of those parents/caregivers pick up the smartphone and scroll, call, check emails, surf the Internet, whatever. Sixteen of them used the device nearly the entire time.
What interested them was not what the caregivers did online so much as the child's response to it. The response by the children "ranged from entertaining themselves to escalating bids for attention." They noted that "highly absorbed caregivers often responded harshly to child misbehavior."
The lack of engagement with the child was a "big mistake" since children learn face to face, Radesky told NPR. "They learn language, they learn about their own emotions, they learn how to regulate them. They learn by watching us how to have a conversation, how to read other people's facial expressions. And if that's not happening, children are missing out on important development milestones."
Radesky noted that the more parents dived into their phones, the more the children acted out.
Psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair told NPR's Patti Neighmond that when parents put their digital devices first, "there can be deep emotional consequences for the child." Steiner-Adair is author of "The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age."
In an essay in Time magazine, Dominique Browning writes about the same thing. "All around me, I see parents with their babies and toddlers and young kids — but not with them. The grownups are on the phone. The dad pushing his son on the swing set while hands-free on his mobile isn’t really with his child. The mom pushing her baby in a pram while she’s yakking on the phone isn’t really with her child."
She adds, "The kids aren’t too happy about it. They’re pulling on their parents’ clothes. They’re yanking on their arms. They’re acting out to get attention. I’ve heard them begging their parents to stop, disconnect. I’ve watched children start to whimper the minute the mobile is picked up — off the dinner table."
Gedeon Deák, professor at the University of California, San Diego, studies development and parent-child interaction. In an interview with NBC News' Brian Alexander, he "pointed out that children in many cultures grow up without constant face-to-face eye gazing and vocalization between parent and child, and yet 'they don’t become sociopaths.'”
Watching families in fast-food restaurants doesn't say too much about how they are in other settings or at home, he added. "On the other hand," Alexander wrote, "he wondered how parent distraction and device interruption may affect the development of subtler skills in children, such as empathy and ability to read the vocal, eye and facial cues of others."
Boston.com "MD Mama" pediatrician Dr. Claire McCarthy admits that she's addicted to her phone, using a few spare minutes here and there to catch up with emails and other tasks. It's rare, she said, when she doesn't at least check it when she's out with her kids. The impact, as the study itself noted, is not clear.
She encourages people to harness the good of smartphones for family time. The study found some families use the device together and enjoy it. "We've definitely experienced that. My eldest is good at finding really funny YouTube videos that she shares with us (like the one of the squirrel trying to hide a nut in a Bernese Mountain Dog's fur — we have a Berner and could totally imagine it happening). There's the app Heads Up! which is a great family game. There are lots of ways to turn the phone into something that brings you together instead of separating you."
There's no question cellphones offer families some real benefits, as well. For instance, last November researchers at University of Kansas and Notre Dame reported that "when parenting coaches texted and called mothers who had participated in a home-based parenting program, they were much more likely than the other mothers in the study to learn and use positive parenting strategies — both immediately following and six months after the program ended. They were less depressed and stressed than the control group who didn’t receive parent training as well as the mothers who did receive the same parenting program but without the cell phone component."
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