How Parents Use Cell Phones at Mealtime

Parent use of cell phones during meals revealed insights into behaviors

(RxWiki News) Mobile phones have become an increasingly important and often demanding part of life today. But do they get in the way of parent and child interaction?

A recent study began to dig deeper into this question by observing parents eating with their children at fast food restaurants.

The researchers found that almost three-quarters of the parents used their phones at least once during relatively short meals with their kids. But the parents who were the most absorbed in their phones revealed the greatest insights about how the children responded.

The study is a first step in beginning to understand how mobile phone use might influence family relationships.

"Limit the time you're on your cell phone around your kids."

The study, led by Jenny S. Radesky, MD, of the Department of Pediatrics at Boston Medical Center, aimed to learn a bit more about parents' use of cell phones while out with their children.

The researchers visited several fast food restaurants in the Boston area and observed 55 parents or other caregivers (guardians, babysitters, grandparents) who were there with at least one young child.

Most of the children were school age, and the meals lasted anywhere from about 10 to 40 minutes.

The observers at each restaurant took careful notes on whether and how much the caregiver used their mobile phone and how both the child and the caregiver acted while there.

Then all these notes were gathered together so that researchers could seek out common themes or behaviors that appeared throughout the observations.

The results revealed that 40 of the 55 caregivers observed used their mobile phones during the meal.

The biggest influence on the interactions between the caregiver and the child appeared to be how absorbed in the cell phone the caregiver appeared to be.

The level of being "absorbed" in the mobile device was determined using several factors to help define the extent to which the parents were more engaged with their mobile phones than with their children.

One of these factors included a combination of how frequently the parent used the cell phone, how long they used it and how they used it.

Another factor involved how the children responded to the parents' cell phone use, whether it was keeping themselves busy or increasingly trying to get the parents' attention.

The researchers also analyzed how the parents responded to this behavior in their children and whether they used the mobile phone by themselves or shared it.

"Highly absorbed caregivers often responded harshly to child misbehavior," the researchers noted.

Among those observed, 16 of the caregivers "used the device almost continuously throughout the meal, eating and talking while looking at the device or only putting it down briefly to engage in other activities," the researchers reported.

These 16 cell phone users crossed a range of ages, included both males and females and were as likely to have another adult present as not to.

Usually, these caregivers were not talking on the phone but rather were swiping or typing on it with their eyes nearly continuously only on the mobile phone.

In fact, those who were on a phone call during the meal at any time usually maintained some eye contact with their children and did not spend as much time on the phone as those who texted or used other applications.

The study did not draw any conclusions about the effects of this use. Its goal was simply to document how frequently it appeared to occur and the characteristics of it that seemed to most influence the interaction between parents and their children.

How absorbed the parents were in what they were doing with the cell phone appeared to have the biggest effect on how the children behaved, and then how the parents behaved in response.

Although not many conclusions can be drawn from this study right now, Tracie Newman, MD, a pediatrician with Sanford Health in Fargo, ND, pointed out some reminders that are relevant to the findings, such as the importance of family meals and limiting screen time for children.

"Research has shown kids eat healthier foods and are less likely to be overweight or develop an eating disorder with family meals," Dr. Newman said.

"Kids do better in school and are less likely to drink, smoke or use drugs," she said. "Family meals lead to less depression, greater overall enhanced psychosocial well-being and positive family interactions."

She also reminded parents that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends less than two hours per day of screen time.

"We hope parents are modeling such behavior," she said. Those getting more than that are probably not reading enough or being active enough at higher levels. "If families use screens together, we recommend 'active' use – discussing with your child what you are seeing and doing."

The study was published March 10 in the journal Pediatrics.  The authors declared no conflicts of interest.

The research was funded by Boston University School of Medicine and The Joel and Barbara Alpert Endowment for the Children of the City.

Review Date: 
March 10, 2014