Study: Parents Focus on Smartphones, Not Kids

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Harvard Medical School
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Study: Parents Focus on Smartphones, Not Kids

News Review From Harvard Medical School

March 10, 2014

News Review From Harvard Medical School -- Study: Parents Focus on Smartphones, Not Kids

Mobile devices like smartphones and tablets go with us everywhere. Even when we're dining out with family and friends. A new study in the journal Pediatrics looked at how adults used mobile devices when they were with their kids. Researchers focused on meal time. They conducted 55 anonymous observations in fast food restaurants, in Boston from July to August 2013. They took detailed notes about how and how much parents interacted with their mobile devices and their kids. Forty parents actually used their smartphone during the meal. Some were totally absorbed in their phones the entire time. Some shared photos or videos with their kids. Researchers also noted how parents dealt with kids acting up while they were on the phone. Some parents gave their kids a look or a nudge. Some provided a mobile device for their child to play on. The study was published in Pediatrics online. HealthDay News reported on it March 10.


By Henry H. Bernstein, D.O., M.H.C.M.
Harvard Medical School


What Is the Doctor's Reaction?

Smartphones are everywhere. So are tablets, like an iPad. You see them at home, work, restaurants, playgrounds and many other places. They make our lives easier. But they can be distracting, too.

What happens when parents or other caregivers use mobile devices around children? The journal Pediatrics just published the answer. Researchers carefully watched 55 parents eating with children 10 years of age or younger at fast food restaurants.

Forty of these adults used a mobile device during their meal. How absorbed they were in their devices was looked at closely. In other words, researchers looked at how much of a parent’s attention was on the device rather than the child.

How did parents use their mobile devices?

  • Those most absorbed used their device the whole time. They looked at it while eating and talking.
  • Those less absorbed only used their device for short periods of time. This included checking the device, sending a quick text message, or answering a phone call and then putting the phone away.
  • Parents were found to be more absorbed when typing or making swiping finger motions versus talking on the phone. This was probably because they had to look at the device instead of at the children.

How did the children and parents interact with each other during the meal?

  • Some children entertained themselves while their parents used their mobile devices.
  • Many children acted out for attention. Absorbed parents usually ignored the behavior for a while. Later, some yelled or responded with their body (kicking the child under the table or pushing his or her hands away).

Was the mobile device shared with the child or used separately?

  • A few parents shared the mobile device to show photos or videos. They were less absorbed in the device because their attention was mainly on their children.
  • Some parents gave a mobile device to the child for entertainment or to control behavior. They were sometimes absorbed in their own mobile device at the same time.
  • When a mobile device was not shared, many children seemed fascinated by it. Some tried to grab it or watch what the adult was doing.

The study authors found a range of patterns in mobile device use with varying degrees of absorption. These findings should lead to more research about the use of technology around children and its impact on adult-child interactions.


What Changes Can I Make Now?

Technology is a big part of our daily lives. But too much "screen time" can be harmful to your child’s growth and development. This includes TV, computers, smart phones, tablets and video games. Setting some screen time limits could help. Here are some tips:

No screen time for children under 2. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says screen time is not good for this age group. Babies learn best from real interactions with people and objects. Too much screen time can also lead to language delays in young children.

  • Do not use the TV as a babysitter. Instead, look for ways to interact with your baby face to face.
  • Do not have your baby play with smartphones or tablets. Many important types of learning cannot happen from a 2-dimensional screen.

Limit screen time for children 2 years and older. The AAP recommends no more than 1-2 hours per day. Keep TVs, computers and video games out of your child’s bedroom. Instead of sitting in front of the screen, your child should be:

  • Reading
  • Playing
  • Exercising
  • Taking part in outdoor activities

 "Unplug" during family time.

  • Set a "no screen time" rule during family meals. Mealtime is important for family conversations. Everyone can share their day’s experiences. TV and other technology should not get in the way. Having meals in front of a TV can lead to overeating and gaining weight.
  • Plan other technology-free times like weekends and vacations.  

Be a good role model -- monitor your screen time, too. Your child will tend to do as you do, and not as you say. If you avoid watching TV and using your mobile device all the time, your child will learn that screen time is not so important. You will have more attention to give your child, too!


What Can I Expect Looking to the Future?

This study is an important first step to looking at how smartphones and tablets affect parent-child interactions. It raises important questions for future research:

  • What activities on mobile devices absorb parents' attention the most?
  • How do parents feel about their own mobile device use?
  • What are the long-term effects on child development when parents are always on their mobile devices?

You can expect the doctor to talk with you about limiting all types of screen time, for you and your child. This is an important step for the whole family!

Last updated March 10, 2014

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