Parents on Smartphones Ignore Their Kids, Study Finds

By Ross Charles M.D. (@rosscharlesMD)

The alluring glow of that smartphone affects our skills as parents, and kids take notice, a new study found.

Researchers from Boston Medical Center went undercover in 15 local fast food restaurants to observe nature's parenting playground. Watching silently from a distance, they observed the interactions between family members, noting in particular the reactions children had when mom or dad punched away at the portable keys.

"It's just like people watching, basically, except we were taking very detailed notes about observations," said Dr. Jenny S. Radesky, a fellow in developmental behavioral pediatrics at Boston Medical Center and lead author of the study published today in the journal Pediatrics.

Parents in 40 of the 55 families observed were absorbed in their mobile devices, according to the study. They seemed more distracted when they were typing and making swiping motions with the fingers than when making phone calls. And almost a third of the parents used their devices continuously throughout their meal.

Some children appeared unaffected and ate their meals in silence. Other children were more provocative, with one set of siblings singing "Jingle bells, Batman smells" to get their dad's attention.

The degree to which the device was used, however, did not necessarily directly relate to the way in which the child reacted, according to the study.

While the findings are far from conclusive when it comes to the impact of parents' mobile device use around kids, it suggests the tech-savvy world we live in extends beyond the perimeters of the pixelated screen.

"The conclusion I wouldn't draw from the study, is that we need to completely remove these devices when we are with our children," she said. "But it does raise the issue that we need to create boundaries for these devices when we are with our children."

Dr. Gene Beresin, executive director of the MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, agreed.

"Mealtimes in certain cultures are generally times when children make attachments," said Beresin, who was not involved in the study. "It's not a time when one is typically working.

"When we eat, when we snuggle, when a parent puts a child to bed - these are important times when parent-child connectedness is important," he said. "It sends a message to the child to pay attention to each other, to establish some intimacy."

Beresin said the advice to parents is simple.

"The moral of the story is be observant," he said. "Be mindful. Be aware. Both in what you are doing and in what you are teaching your children."

Doctor's Take

From worsening wrinkles to "tech neck," we have heard smartphones implicated in a number of mental and physical woes, both real and imaginary. As to whether this study truly gives device-dependent parents another thing to worry about, the jury's still out. After all, the study was small in design and took place entirely in fast food restaurants - arguably a socially accepted hub for multitasking and an ode to the pace with which we run our lives.

Still, it suggests that these behaviors by parents may indeed affect the relationships they have with their youngest sidekicks. And despite the usefulness of these devices in keeping families together and on the same page - they allow us, for example, to send a quick reminder of our affection to loved ones when we're on the go - they have the potential to divert our attention as well.

So, for now, perhaps it's best for parents to flip on "Airplane Mode" and enjoy a moment each day connecting with our families. Children often evolve faster than technology itself… no software updates required.