What is the effect of our mobile device use on our kids? We intuitively know that it probably isn’t good to use our phones too much when we are with kids, yet mobile devices offer so many advantages to modern-day parenting, such as greater work-life balance and social connection, and we do not have a good sense of the real effects, both on the child and on our relationship with him/her. CMCS Affiliate Dr. Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioral pediatrician at BUSM, and colleagues sought to find out the answers by engaging in nonparticipant observations of 55 caregivers sitting with one more children at fast food restaurants in a single metropolitan area.

The researchers recorded detailed observations of caregivers’ mobile device usage and the apparent effects this had on immediate child-caregiver interactions. They then qualitatively analyzed their field notes, finding that the dominant theme relevant to parent-child interaction was what they termed parent ‘absorption’ with mobile devices. While caregivers exhibited varying degrees of absorption, those who had high absorption, meaning the mobile device was their primary focus of attention and engagement, appeared more likely to respond harshly to the child – for example, raising their voice, speaking critically to the child, or even getting physical with the child. For these adults, the researchers presumed that the child might be seen as an interruption and distraction from the device. For their part, the children employed a range of behaviors to compensate for this adult behavior, from entertaining themselves to engaging in what the researchers term “escalating bids for attention” from the adult.

Although this study cannot confirm the long term effects of adult mobile device use on children , it raised several significant hypotheses about how mobile device use may disrupt parent-child interactions during family routines, which are known to be important to child social-emotional development. “These face-to-face interactions are a crucial part of young children learning language, social skills, self-regulation, and empathy” says Radesky. “While we don’t want parents to feel that all mobile device use around their children is necessarily bad, these results do raise the issue that if we get into the habit of always ‘checking’ or reaching for our devices during the day-to-day routines that sometimes, honestly, get a little boring for parents, we run the risk of displacing important early learning opportunities for our children. It’s also important to recognize that mobile media can be a great source of joint engagement between parents and young children; we didn’t see much of that in our study, but I do encourage parents to co-view media with their children, which can be a great launching point for play, learning, or conversation.”

The article was published in the journal Pediatrics.

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