Does Your Phone Come Between You and Your Kids?

Parents react harshly when interrupted on mobile devices
Stressed woman holding phone

A new study finds that adults pay more attention to their smart phone than their children during restaurant outings.

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And adults tend to react harshly – and in some cases, physically – to the children who interrupt their screen time.

Researchers from Boston University spent time watching 55 adults at a fast-food restaurant. Each of the adults was with one or more young children.

Forty of the adults used a smart phone during the meal. Sixteen used the device the entire time while they ate with the children.  They put the smart phone down only briefly.

Ignoring your children

“Many of these caregivers were looking at their handheld devices while they were eating and not paying attention to their children,” says pediatrician Elaine Schulte, MD, MPH.

Many children appeared to test limits or exhibit provocative behaviors during the time their caregiver concentrated on the smart phone.

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The caregivers buried in their devices frequently ignored the child’s behavior for a while and then reacted harshly when the children misbehaved.

The caregivers would respond with a scolding tone of voice, gave repeated instructions in a somewhat robotic voice, seemed insensitive to the children’s needs or responded physically – like giving a kick under the table.

A cautionary tale

The results are a cautionary tale for all parents about mobile device use, Dr. Schulte says.

Mobile devices can distract parents from face-to-face interactions with their children, she says. These face-to-face interactions are crucial for cognitive, language and emotional development.

“Children really need that interaction,” Dr. Schulte says. “The best thing for developing minds is to build that relationship where the parent is looking at the child, where the child is looking at the parent, they’re engaging in conversation.”

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Handheld devices, with their instant access to videos and games, have the potential danger to replace enriching parent and child activities, the study says. Some parents also tend to use mobile devices as a “pacifier” to control child behavior.

Put down the phone and talk

Mealtimes are a time for parents and children to relax and talk, Dr. Schulte says.

“It’s not a time to withdraw, close-in, and do your own thing,” she says.

Use of mobile device is a complex set of behaviors, and its potential positive and negative effects on interaction between parent and child remain unexplored, the study says.

The study’s complete findings appear in the journal Pediatrics.

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