March 10, 2014 / 12:45 PM / 6 years ago

Caregivers often pick up phones at mealtime

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Some parents pay more attention to their mobile devices than the kids they’re supervising during meals, according to a new analysis.

Researchers found that among a small number of adults they observed eating at fast food restaurants with children, about 40 percent of those with mobile devices paid attention to the phone or tablet “almost continuously” throughout the meal.

“If we’re getting in the habit of always taking the devices out - a lull or a daily routine that’s starting to be a bit boring - we can be missing quality interaction time with our kids,” Dr. Jenny Radesky told Reuters Health.

Radesky is the study’s lead author from Boston Medical Center.

She and her colleagues write in the journal Pediatrics that face-to-face interactions with parents are crucial to the cognitive, language and emotional development of children.

Access to mobile devices also increases children’s ability to watch videos and play games. Those may replace more enriching activities, they write.

The American Academy of Pediatrics already recommends limiting screen time to one or two hours per day among children (see Reuters Health story of October 28, 2013 here:

Although the new study can’t draw any conclusions about the effects of parents’ mobile device use on the development of their children or provide statistics on device use among parents, Radesky said it points the way toward future research.

For the study, she and her colleagues visited fast food restaurants in 15 neighborhoods in the Boston area and watched 55 meals that adults had with one or more children.

The researchers observed the diners while sitting at a nearby table. They recorded detailed notes, including about whether the adults had devices and how often they used them.

Of the 55 meals that were analyzed, 40 involved some mobile device. About 60 percent of the meals included a single adult. All meals were shared with one to three children.

In addition to the 15 adults who didn’t have devices on the table or out while eating, three others had devices but left them on the table.

However, 16 of the adults used a mobile device throughout the meal, “only putting it down briefly to engage in other activities,” according to the researchers. Another eight adults became absorbed in their devices every now and then.

While some kids entertained themselves, others tested the adults’ limits.

For example, in one situation, three boys began making up words and singing a version of the holiday song “Jingle Bells,” which implied that the superhero Batman smelled. The adult would periodically scold the boys and then return to his phone.

“Sometimes the caregivers weren’t able to handle it and they lost their cool,” Radesky said.

“Those were the minority of the families that we observed,” she added. “Overall, we didn’t do this study with the intent of being critical or to say that you shouldn’t use the devices.”

As a researcher, Radesky said the study helps her find out where to look next. In this case, she’s teamed up with the University of Michigan to evaluate video recordings of family meals.

“As a mom what I take away from this study is - like any media behavior - that maybe this calls for a little bit of balance and how can I start to change some of my behaviors at home,” she said.

SOURCE: Pediatrics, online March 10, 2014.

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