Phones and French Fries
This was a bit crazy, like a field study of marmots or something. Researchers went incognito into fast food restaurants all over Boston and observed fifty-five random parents eating meals with their kids. (1) They took detailed notes. Forty of the fifty-five parents used a device during the meal. The researchers found that parents who were typing or swiping with their devices showed more “absorption” (and resulting lack of attention to their kids) than parents who talked on the phone (since they could still make eye contact with their kids). They measured absorption by where the parents’ gaze was directed, whether their gaze stayed on their device when answering questions, the time it took to respond to their kids, or whether they responded at all. Parents who were highly absorbed tended to ignore their kids and then to respond sharply as the kids’ efforts to get their attention increased. Sometimes these parental responses were physical – one mom even pushed her young son’s hands away as he tried to lift her face from her tablet so she would look at him! The fact that the study was purely observational could be viewed as a weakness – however, it has the advantage of looking at “real-life” screen use that would be difficult to replicate in a lab.
Very few things are more important to kids than the attention of their parents. Probably the most common words I said when I was a kid were, “Look, Mom! Look, Dad!” Look at me jump off the couch. Look at the crappy stick figure I drew. Look at me make this funny face. Look at what I made for you. Love, security, feedback, validation, affirming that what you think is important is important. These are all things that we get from having people look at us. Nothing is sadder than seeing a child swinging quietly as their parent absentmindedly pushes them while looking at their phone. They’ve given up. They don’t even say “Look at me!” anymore.
1. Patterns of mobile device use by caregivers and children during meals in fast food restaurants. Radesky JS et al. Pediatrics. 2014;133(4)