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Grown-ups: Put down the smartphones at mealtime

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You’ve seen it before: Parents using cell phones while their children vie for their attention. Now a new study suggests these behaviors can be seen often at mealtime — an important time for child-caregiver interactions.

In the new study, published Monday in Pediatrics, researchers not only observed these behaviors, but extensively recorded and described aspects of caregiver cell phone use.

Researchers observed 55 caregivers with young children at fast-food restaurants in the metropolitan Boston area. Out of the 55 observed, 40 caregivers (73%) used devices at some point during the meal. Nearly 30% used the device almost continuously throughout the meal, only briefly putting it down.

“A lot of pediatric research literature showing that connections and interpersonal interactions during mealtimes are really beneficial to children’s health and development,” says lead author and pediatrician Dr. Jenny Radesky.

The caregivers that were most absorbed in their cell phones, primarily focusing on the device rather than the child, were the ones continuously typing or making swiping finger motions on their devices. Phone calls seemed to be less absorbing, because parents often made eye contact with their children during the call and put the phones away after.

“(Absorbed caregivers) seemed very irritated and flustered at trying to balance their attention between parenting and whatever they were doing on their device,” Radesky says. “Another major dynamic was that the child kept trying to make conversation and the caregiver would respond in a way that was delayed or didn’t seem attuned to what the child was saying.”

Some children responded by “increasing bids for attention” while others would “accept the lack of engagement and entertain themselves,” the study showed.

“If you are in a public place… your best chance of your child being well-behaved is for you to pay attention to them,” says Dr. Ari Brown, pediatrician and author of Baby 411.

While cell phones often lead to “distracted parenting,” as Brown calls it, they can also create opportunities to share moments together, to be entertained together, and to learn together, she says. The study found that caregivers who used phones together with children were less focused on the device and more on the experience with the child.

This is the first study to look at this topic and was not intended to draw any conclusions about how mobile device use affects relationships between caregivers and children.

The authors hope to generate questions for future studies that dive into more specifics of caregiver cell phone use and care for their children. The long-term effects of such “present absence” should be considered moving forward.

“When parents talk to their child less, their language development is affected,” Brown says.

For parents trying to manage their cell phone use and spend more time with their children, Rachel Stafford, New York Times best-selling author of Hands Free Mama, recommends starting small.

“Create a daily ritual where time with your loved one is protected from all distractions and interruptions. That might be nightly tuck ins, breakfast time, or walking the dog,” Stafford says “You might have missed time with your loved ones, but there’s always today.”

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