Observation of mobile device use among caregivers at mealtime

Image: PD

1. In this observational study of caregivers and children during public mealtimes, caregiver absorption with mobile devices was a common theme among observed interactions.

2. Caregivers absorbed in mobile device use often responded harshly to child behaviors during mealtimes.

Study Rundown: While mobile devices are now well-integrated into our daily lives, studies have yet to address the implications of device use on family dynamics. This study lays the groundwork for future research by investigating patterns in mobile device use among caregivers and their children  while eating a meal, a time in which person-to-person interaction is typical. Through anonymous, direct observation of caregivers with children at mealtimes, researchers found a dominant theme: caregiver absorption with their device. The greatest extent of absorption occurred with continuous use that consisted of swiping and typing. Caregivers who successfully balanced their attention between the device and their child were apt to use their device for brief time periods with a specific purpose, followed by removal of the device from the setting. Though this study is limited by its small sample size, observational study design leading to a lack of quantitative analysis, and observer interpretation bias, it is the first to document patterns of mobile device use among caregivers with their children in a natural setting and raises many questions for future investigative studies.

Click to read the study in Pediatrics

Relevant Reading: Parenting Behaviors, Perceptions and Psychosocial Risk: Impacts on Young Children’s Development

Study Author, Dr. Jenny S. Radesky, MD, talks to 2 Minute Medicine: Boston Medical Center/Boston University Medical Center, Department of Pediatrics. 

This study is the first to try to examine the various ways that caregivers and children use mobile devices around each other, and what effects (positive or negative) devices might have on interpersonal interactions.  We found that caregivers who were highly absorbed with devices seemed to have less conversation, or sometimes more conflict, with the children in their care.  This is relevant to trainees who might counsel families to have some “unplugged” time with each other daily, or might encounter patients/parents becoming very absorbed with devices while we try to talk to them in clinic.

In-Depth [Naturalistic, anonymous observational study]: Researchers observed children and their caregivers in fast food restaurants in 15 neighborhoods in the Boston area on 55 occasions. Ninety children, estimated to be 0-10 years of age were observed, with 54 estimated to be “school aged,” 14 categorized as preschoolers, 16 as toddlers, and 6 as infants. Researchers had backgrounds in either child development or anthropology, and had additional training in anthropologic field study methods. Fifty-eight percent of caregiver-child groups had 1 caregiver present and 49% of caregiver-child groups had 1 child. Of the 78 observed caregivers, 16 used their devices continuously and 15 did not bring out a device at all during the meal. Researchers categorized absorption by considering frequency, duration and modality of device use (finger swiping, typing compared and taking phone calls), the response of caregivers to children’s behavior, and mobile device viewing patterns (separately or together). Adults with the highest device absorption showed longer latency in responding to bids for attention and directed their gaze primarily at their device while responding to children. Many children exhibited limit testing or provocative behaviors while adults were absorbed, and these adults initially ignored the behavior then followed with scolding or physical responses (kicking a child’s foot under the table, pushing a boy’s hands away as he was trying to lift the caregiver’s face up from the tablet screen).

More from this author: Bullying associated with poorer health among middle school children, Caffeine intake among youth remains stable, but sources vary

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