Kids of device-distracted parents more likely to act out, study finds

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We hear a lot about how too much screen time could affect children.

A recent study went even further to try and find out how parents’ and caregivers' use of devices in front of their children could impact those children.

NPR News describes how the study came about:

Dr. Jenny Radesky is a pediatrician specializing in child development. When she worked at a clinic in a high-tech savvy Seattle neighborhood, Radesky started noticing how often parents ignored their kids in favor of a mobile device. She remembers a mother placing her phone in the stroller between herself and the baby. "The baby was making faces and smiling at the mom," Radesky says, "and the mom wasn't picking up any of it; she was just watching a YouTube video."

For the study, which was observational and not scientific, Radesky observed 55 groups of Boston parents and young children eating in fast food restaurants. Forty of the 55 parents used a mobile device during the meal.

NPR reports researchers found that lack of attention is a big mistake, because face-to-face interactions are the primary way children learn.

"They learn language, they learn about their own emotions, they learn how to regulate them," she says. "They learn by watching us how to have a conversation, how to read other people's facial expressions. And if that's not happening, children are missing out on important development milestones."

And, she found, kids were more likely to act out in an effort to get their parents attention when the parents were absorbed in their devices.

Researchers say more study is needed on how digital distraction impacts parenting and children. But previous studies have shown that eye contact is important for bonding between parents and children.

MIT professor Sherry Turkle, author of “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other,” told NBC News she sees real danger. When she has observed families at home she sees that same kind of device distraction of parents as Radesky’s team found, NBC News reports,

She told NBC News, “what’s troubling is that parents do not respond appropriately to children” seeking attention “and their own distraction from the children. That’s the real story in this paper, the vicious little secret that starts the pathology we should worry about.”

One thing that is clear, says Dr. Gail Saltz, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital, is that eating meals with parents has been linked to a variety of benefits.

Children who have regular sit-down meals with family are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol or get pregnant as teenagers. They earn better grades. These benefits don’t accrue just because parents and children are munching carrots at the same time; they happen because the family is communicating.

Children who constantly see their parents playing with smartphones at the dinner table can feel neglected, insecure or not worth your time, Saltz says. “You’re going to miss a lot of those benefits of eating meals together.”

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