Looking around a restaurant during dinner, Jenny Radesky, a pediatrician and mother of two, said she started to notice more and more people were on their mobile devices.
"I started to wonder if parents' screen time is also becoming a barrier to interactions with their children," said Radesky, lead researcher on a new study about caregivers' mobile devices use and child interactions.
Could meal times be evolving from face-to-face time with a child, to more screen time?
A new analysis by researchers at the Boston University Medical Center, in today's Pediatrics, explores caregivers' use of mobile devices around children during meal times. Over July and August 2013, Radesky and two other researchers visited fast-food restaurants in varying socioeconomic neighborhoods in Boston and observed 55 interactions of anonymous "non-participants." The researchers noted how absorbed caregivers were in their mobile devices, how children responded and how caregivers dealt with this behavior.
They observed that 40 people used their mobile device at some point, and 16 seemed extremely adsorbed in the device. Radesky said in half of the cases where caregivers were highly absorbed, children either entertained themselves or started to showcase limit-testing behaviors or bids for attention. In the people who displayed high absorption such as keeping their gaze directed at the device while answering questions and having a longer response time to kids' bid for attention, some responded harshly toward the child.
"In highly absorbed caregivers, they weren't really tuned into what was going on," Radesky said. "One child tried to raise his caregiver's face to look at him and not the screen, another said he wasn't done with food that was thrown away, and each time the caregiver just went back to the screen."
Mark Goldstein, a child clinical psychologist in Illinois, who was not involved in the study, said he's seeing more and more cases where children feel their parents are ignoring them for screen time.
"Kids want their parents to focus on them," Goldstein said. "So when they are looking for engagement and a device is in the way, they are getting the message 'you aren't that important.'"
According to a Cisco mobile data forecast, by the end of 2014, there will be more mobile devices than people on Earth. With tablets and smartphones, entertainment and work are just a swipe away. Lawrence Balter, a child psychologist and professor of applied psychology at New York University, said while there has been a lot said about limiting children's use of screen time, parents need to lead by example.
"Culturally, we pass along traditions, and during meal time the focus should be on paying attention, being involved, and adding to the interpersonal experience with whoever is sitting there," Balter said.
Radesky said the observational study was meant to develop questions for further research and sets the groundwork for questions of long-term developmental effects on children whose caregiver is absorbed in a mobile device.
"The study raises more questions than it answers," Radesky said. "We're working further on the suggestion that highly absorbed caregivers are less sensitive to children, and also looking at videotapes of meal times and noting repeated behaviors."
For many, scrolling through mobile devices is almost second nature. Goldstein said he urges parents to make rules for themselves and those who interact with their children, that mobile devices during meal times should be put away.
"As a society we have constant distractions, we need to find time to stay focused, engaged and talk," Goldstein said. "At mealtimes, that's especially important."