Dr. Jenny Radesky, a fellow in developmental-and-behavioral pediatrics at Boston Medical Center, specializes in counseling parents about developmental and behavioral issues with their children. So she was naturally curious about how the ubiquity of smartphones, and their distracting allure, might affect the quality of time that parents and their children spent together. Previous studies showed that TVs, even if they are only on in the background, can inhibit children's creativity and siphon their concentrating and focusing powers.
To study the effect of smartphones, Radesky and her colleagues sent in undercover investigators to surreptitiously observe any adult-child grouping with more than one youngster as they ate at a fast-food restaurant. The observers recorded the behavior of both the adults and the children in 55 such groupings, as well as how frequently the adults used their smartphones.
The data provided an unvarnished look at how absorbed many parents were by their devices. One child reached over in an attempt to lift his mother's face while she looked down at a tablet, but to no avail. Another mother kicked her child under the table in response to the child's various attempts to get her attention while she looked at her phone. A father responded in curt and irritated tones to his children's escalating efforts to tear him away from his device.
"What stood out was that in a subset of caregivers using the device almost through the entire meal, how negative their interactions could become with the kids," she says. While the study did not code or quantify the reactions, Radesky says that there were "a lot of instances where there was very little interaction, harsh interaction or negative interaction" between the adults and the children. "That's simply unfair to the children," says Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson of Seattle Children's Hospital and author of the Seattle Mama Doc blog.
In light of the data, Radesky is working with the American Academy of Pediatrics to develop some guidelines for the smart smartphone use in front of the kids — just as the academy has advice for parents on TV viewing (none for toddlers younger than 2).
Image: Mom on smartphone, via Shutterstock