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Study: Smartphones Disrupt Caregiver-Child Interaction

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A new study looks at how the caregiver-child dynamic is affected when the caregiver uses a mobile device during a fast food meal. The study is the latest to question how technology can influence childhood development.

Researchers from the Boston Medical Center observed 55 caregivers eating with one or more children 10 years old or younger at fast food restaurants. Lead author Dr. Jenny Radesky is a development and behavioral pediatrics fellow at the center.

“Some children it didn’t appear to affect them at all and they entertained themselves,” Radesky said. “Other children, especially if the caregiver was what we called highly absorbed, meaning they’re attention was almost entirely focused on the device, that’s when children tended to respond with a little bit more attention-seeking behaviors, meaning they were acting out, acting a little silly, maybe even seeming to provoke their caregiver a little bit. Sometimes, if it was an old child they just kept trying to start conversation and weren’t always getting a response in a timely way or relevant to what they were trying to talk about”

Radesky says researchers only looked at interactions with children who hadn’t reached the preteen years, an age when most have a cell phone of their own. She adds children’s actions also depended on how the caregiver was using the phone.

“The few caregivers who were actually talking on their phones, they were still able to keep eye contact and keep nonverbal behaviors with the children in their care,” she said. “So it didn’t seem as disruptive to caregiver-child interaction as when the caregiver was just looking at the screen.”

Radesky points out the 10 to 15 minutes on average the subjects spent in the fast food restaurant doesn’t take into account in-home lifestyles, but it provided a way for researchers to observe face-to-face interaction without being noticed. She says another variable was the caregiver-child ratio.

“Some parents would kind of tag team where one would be on the phone and the other could help feed or manage the children,” Radesky explained. “Other times both caregivers were on a device. Sometimes, if there were more than one child, the children would kind of entertain each other. So that’s also when a parent might bring out a device because the children were interacting with each other and there wasn’t as much of a pressure for the caregiver to be interacting with them.”

Colleen Jordan is a licensed mental health counselor with a private practice in Pittsfield, Mass. She says she’s observed children both act out to get the attention of distracted parents and imitate parental use of technology.  

“You don’t get what’s called paralinguistics through something like media,” Jordan said. “That’s facial expression, gesture and voice tone. So we’re missing all of that.  Then sometimes people have trouble with those skills face-to-face because we’re so used to the media.”

Radesky says at times the technology facilitated interaction.

“There were families who were using devices to watch videos together, look at family pictures or laugh and share a device,” she said. “I think there is also a potential there for how devices can engage us with each other rather than being a distraction.”

Radesky says the findings will be used to set questions and guidelines for future studies on how cell phones affect child development. She points out it’s a difficult area to study because unlike the television or computer, we carry our cell phones with us, using them intermittently throughout the day.

“How we can build some rules into our day about when we are using devices and when we’re not?” Radesky asked. “When we kind of put it all aside so that we can have more connected or unplugged time with our children, but still keeping ourselves sane by doing what we need to do on our devices?”

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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