Distracted parenting

A new study examines how mobile devices alter the behavior and interaction of children and caregivers. Researchers secretly observed 55 caregivers with one or more children in the Boston area. (Alan Hagman / Los Angeles Times)

Many people agree that focusing on a smartphone or tablet is a bad idea when you're supposed to be driving a car, but what about when you're parenting a child?

As mobile devices become increasingly absorbing and pervasive, social commentators and researchers worry what effects they're having on interactions between children and distracted caregivers.

In a paper published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, Boston researchers described what they called the first-ever investigation into the topic.

They did so by secretly watching subjects at fast-food restaurants and recording their observations in notebooks or laptop computers outfitted with security screens so that their notes couldn't be seen.

As it turns out, parents were so preoccupied with either their smartphones or their children that nobody caught on to what the researchers were doing.

"We chose to observe caregivers and children during meals because this is a daily routine in which face-to-face caregiver-child interactions are considered beneficial," wrote Dr. Jenny Radesky, a pediatrician at Boston Medical Center.

"It has been estimated that 40% of American meals are eaten outside the home, so fast-food outings probably represent a substantial proportion of family meals," Radesky and her colleagues wrote.

Among other observations, researchers found that caregivers who were the most highly absorbed in their technology often responded harshly to child misbehavior.

For example, one woman kicked a child's foot under the table, and another pushed a young boy's hands away when he was trying repeatedly to lift her face up from looking at a tablet screen.

They found also that the highest level of caretaker absorption in an electronic device involved typing or scrolling through information, and not talking on the phone. When they were on the phone, they still made eye contact with their children.

While some caregivers tried to use the devices to settle down unruly children, by playing a video for instance, others were so engrossed that they responded either angrily or robotically to their children.

"Caregiver is looking at the phone, nodding a little while the child talks but not looking back at her or responding with words," one researcher wrote in their observation notes. "Caregiver doesn't appear to be listening but says a few words in response every once in a while."

In another instance involving a father and his sons, a researcher wrote, "Oldest boy starts singing "jingle bells, Batman smells," and the others try to join but don't know the words ... Dad tells them to stop in a firm voice. Then he looks back to the phone ..."

The researchers observed a total of 55 caregivers who were eating with one or more children. Of the caregivers observed, 40 used a mobile device at some point. All were observed in the Boston area.

Radesky and her colleagues acknowledged that the sampling was small, but said it was intended to be the starting point for future, more elaborate studies. 

"We did find it striking that during caregiver absorption with devices, some children appeared to accept the lack of engagement and entertained themselves, whereas others showed increasing bids for attention that were often answered with negative parent responses," the authors wrote.

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