Do you eat, sleep and breathe your smartphone? Always have an iPad at your fingertips? What about during meals with your kids? To researchers, that might be a game-changer.
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The restaurant buzzes with families grabbing a quick meal. Children poke at each other and squirm in their seats and parents — well, they're not really paying attention. An important email just popped up from work, or that edgy private Facebook page just blew up into a cat fight.

Parents often are distracted by mobile devices while with their children in fast-food restaurants, according to results of a small study, published in the journal Pediatrics, titled, Patterns of Mobile Device Use by Caregivers and Children During Meals in Fast Food Restaurants.

Dr. Jenny Radesky, a fellow in developmental behavioral pediatrics at Boston Medical Center, led the study. She cautions against interpreting the study as a condemnation of parents for using devices around their children ("We all do it!" she says.) Results indicate the behavior is quite common, leading to more questions about how a parent's preoccupied behavior may — or may not — affect a child.

The battle for parents' attention

"We know from decades of child development research that sensitive, responsive parent-child interactions are crucial to how children develop language, the ability to regulate strong emotions, the ability to understand other people's perspectives and learn empathy," Dr. Radesky says.

She has two children, ages 4 years and 8 months. After noticing children in a clinic setting struggling to pull their parents' attention from mobile devices, she and her colleagues wondered if such interactions would affect relationships in the long-term.

"I struggle with this myself every day," Dr. Radesky admits. "So I was amazed that there has been no research on this issue, and therefore no guidance for parents."

Fast-food observations

In 15 neighborhoods around metro Boston (in both low-income and affluent areas), researchers set up camp in fast-food restaurants and observed any group in which an adult accompanied one or more children who appeared to range from infancy to elementary school age.

Interaction behavior was similar in many cases: a parent was distracted by a mobile device, a child appealed for attention, the parent continued to be distracted or reacted to the child's bid for attention, sometimes showing annoyance.

Researchers monitored 55 caregivers, and the interactions between parent and child during the meal often were quite similar. Of the 55, 40 used a mobile device during the meal. Sixteen of these adults used the mobile device throughout the meal.

Interaction behavior was similar in many cases: a parent was distracted by a mobile device, a child appealed for attention, the parent continued to be distracted or reacted to the child's bid for attention, sometimes showing annoyance. But some interactions startled Dr. Radesky and her team.

Surprising physical interactions

"We were surprised to see two caregivers get physical with kids when they were highly absorbed with devices — one kicking the child's foot, the other shoving a child's hands away when he tried to lift her face from looking at a tablet screen," she says.

Interactions weren't all negative. "We also saw several examples of families co-viewing or sharing media on devices that seemed to help them enjoy their meal together," she says.

Maureen Wallace using phone with child

Photo credit: Jeremy Wallace

Real parents, different rules

Have you thought about how often you use your device around your children? Is it another check mark on the guilt list? It is for me, and I routinely ask my husband to put down his iPhone during meals.

Our children are ages 3 years, 2 years and 4 months. The two oldest drool at the sight of an iPad and routinely reach for our phones. Because I work from home, I often catch myself absorbed in trying to get something done, such as responding to an email, as my children push for my attention. Now that they're old enough to protest verbally, I have become better about shutting the laptop or putting away the phone and getting on the floor to play. (Yep, that sounds horrible to me, too.)

"Mom, should I email you?"

Photo credit: Audrey McClelland

Audrey McClelland using phoneAudrey McClelland has built her career with devices: She's a Nielsen-ranked Top 50 influential mom online, and her blog MomGenerations was named Top 50 Fashion Blogs by BlogRank in 2012 and made Babble's list of Top 50 Moms on Twitter in 2011.

She and her husband have four sons and one daughter, ranging in ages from 9 years to 9 months, respectively.

"Since my life is all about working online, it becomes a very interesting balance around my house when I'm using devices," McClelland says. "I don't want the boys to think that all Mom does is work on her laptop. I want to help with homework. I want to go to swim practice. I want to be at all the baseball games. I want to be present in my kids' eyes."

McClelland didn't have to wait for research results to prompt a behavior change. "I made this conscious decision about two years ago when my oldest son (who was seven at the time) asked me if he should email me a question. It was a defining moment for me."

Abby has a 2-year-old and is expecting her second child. As owner of public relations agency 28 Montgomerie, she says she's also conscious of the time she spends on the computer or smartphone around her son.

"My goal is to be present with him when he is awake and playing," she says. "I do my best to save my work while he is taking a nap. Of course, there are times when I check an email, but I'm careful to not stay on for an extended period of time."

"Different generation"

Some parents have rules governing their children's device use but not necessarily their own — and really don't see a need.

[Using devices around the kids is] as normal as me walking the dog or any other task. It's just part of life now.

Sara has a 7-year-old son and 20-month-old twins. She and her husband use devices for work and must be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. She says they only regulate themselves at meal times, when use is off-limits.

"It's a different generation," Sara says. "[Using devices around the kids is] as normal as me walking the dog or any other task. It's just part of life now. It would be different if we weren't parenting [our kids] or paying attention to [them]."

"Mom, Mommy... Mom!"

Cheri has two boys, ages 7 and 12. "I don't necessarily see the kids reacting when we are on our devices," she says. "… but what I have noticed is myself getting so engrossed into something, whether a text or something on Facebook, that ashamedly I have to admit there have been one too many times where I've heard our own version of, 'Mom, Mommy... Mom!' before they've regained my attention."

Julie's children are 6 and 8. "I don't really monitor my use but I should — I am on my phone and computer a lot. My kids don't react and it is probably because they are older and honestly have their own devices."

Advice for parents

Dr. Radesky emphasizes this study is just the beginning of understanding how parents' behavior with technology can impact their children, but there are certainly some takeaways.

"I think what probably matters most is how we stay aware of our media use habits around our kids," she says. "Try to reflect on how we balance attention between what we're doing on a device and interactions with people around us, and maybe think of times when we can unplug to be able to connect with our children in play."

Try to reflect on how we balance attention between what we're doing on a device and interactions with people around us, and maybe think of times when we can unplug to be able to connect with our children in play.

After all, putting the devices away can introduce a calming simplicity to life.

"It makes parenting much easier too, to not have to toggle our attention between email, etcetera, on our devices and what crazy things our kids may be doing to get our attention," Dr. Radesky adds. "My sons find the most bizarre ways to provoke me when I have my face glued to my tablet."

"What really matters"

Cheri, mom to two boys, may sum it up best: "Technology is a brilliant thing, but it also can be a time suck that is easy to fall into. When it is at the expense of my children, then it is definitely time to shut it off completely and get engrossed in what really matters: my two sons."

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