Are smartphones to blame for distracted parenting?

Watch the video above: Is technology to blame for distracted parenting? Crystal Goomansingh reports. 

TORONTO – Parents tap away at their iPhones while their kids play during lunch. Sometimes, the kids start acting up – in that case parents tell them to stop without even taking their gaze off their device.

This scenario may be too familiar. In a new study, scientists sat in fast food joints and covertly watched families interacting. What did they find? Most parents are so into their smartphones that they’re ignoring their kids.

Boston Medical Center researchers say they know cellphones are ubiquitous these days, but they wanted to conduct a small study to look into how parents are using them around their kids.

“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,” Dr. Jenny Radesky, a pediatrician and lead author, wrote in the study.

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“It has been estimated that 40 per cent of American meals are eaten outside the home, so fast food outings probably represent a substantial proportion of family meals,” she said.

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While going undercover, the scientists went into 15 Boston restaurants and watched about 55 families interact over their meals. Forty of them had mobile devices on the table and the families had kids from babies to 10-year-olds.

Sixteen of these parents were using their phones for the entire meal. Another three handed their phones to their kids to keep them quiet and one little girl even took the phone herself and used it during her lunch.

Some observations from her study include:

  • “Girl [school age] is talking to her caregiver, caregiver is looking at the phone, nodding a little while the child talks but not looking back at her or responding with words.”
  • “Female caregiver is holding the baby in her lap and is staring at her cell phone. Both boys [preschool and school age] are sitting in their chairs staring around….Oldest boy is wiggling around in his chair. She says ‘sit down’ without looking up from her phone.”

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In other instances, a little girl gets up, unsupervised, to get ketchup while her parent stays transfixed on her phone. Three boys eating lunch with their father get rambunctious and start singing “Jingle bells, Batman smells” to get their father’s attention. His response? “In a stern voice, seemingly exasperated, dad says, ‘Hurry up!’ He then goes back to playing on his phone.”

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In another case, both parents are at the table: “Mom is showing something to all of them on her phone. Boy is reaching his arm out, and the girl is hitting it, while the girl screams. Dad tells them to stop. Mom is still looking at her phone. Girl gets off of her chair and starts swinging the boy’s chair around. Dad tells her to get back in her chair in stern voice. Mom doesn’t look up from her phone,” the scientists write.

Read the full study, including observation notes, here.

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The study authors say this is the first study that looks at how smartphones leave parents distracted. But other research has pointed to how babies are primed to gaze into their moms’ eyes to seek information. As NBC News sums it up: this is how bonds are formed. Children need face-to-face interaction, speaking and touching with their parents.

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It’s a small study so Radesky says she isn’t telling parents to stop using their phones by any means.

“The conclusion I wouldn’t draw from the study, is that we need to completely remove these devices when we are with our children,” she told ABC News.

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“But it does raise the issue that we need to create boundaries for these devices when we are with our children.”