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Do our phones get in the way of our parenting?

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  March 10, 2014 08:05 AM

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cell phone.jpgThe other day, I took four of my children to a restaurant. Although all but the youngest has a phone, they didn't come out during the meal, except when my eldest wanted to show us what happens when you ask Siri "What does the fox say?"

This was kind of remarkable, especially for me.

I admit it: I am addicted to my smartphone. It's fun, but what I mostly like about it is that it helps make it possible for me to keep all the balls in the air that need to stay there. Whenever I have a down moment, it's great to be able to answer a few emails and get other snippets of things done. Although I'm not proud of it, I definitely pull it out when I am with my children.

I'm not alone. In a really interesting study just published in the journal Pediatrics, researchers from Boston University hung out in a fast food restaurant and watched people. Specifically (because people-watching in fast-food restaurants can be interesting for all sorts of reasons), they watched caregivers with children who were less than ten years old (or at least who looked like they were less than ten). They were curious about their use of "devices" and how it affected the interactions between them.

What they found is what anybody who has been paying attention would predict. Of the 55 families they watched, 40 of them used a device. The amount they used that device varied--from 3 who left it on the table to 16 who were completely absorbed in it the whole time they were at the restaurant. 

Not surprisingly, being really absorbed in your phone means you're really not interacting with your children. The kids had varied responses; some were busy and didn't care, some seemed to accept it, and some kept trying to get their caregiver's attention--sometimes getting angry responses.

Don't you feel like so much has changed in such a short time? Doesn't it feel like all of a sudden everyone is looking into a phone as they do everything? The consequences can obviously be really devastating if you do it while driving...but what are the consequences of doing it while parenting?

That's just it: we don't know. The researchers talked about some of the questions we really need to study, and one of them was the long-term effects on children of "presence-absence," when their caregivers are there, but not really. 

Smartphones are here to stay. I don't think we're changing that. But we can be more thoughtful about how we use them around our kids.

While they were spying on the families, the researchers two things that might help us be thoughtful. First, they noticed that some parents seemed to get the balance right between using their devices and paying attention to their children. They used them, but only briefly--and then they put them aside and  paid attention to their children. This is what I'm trying to work on, and the reason I didn't pull mine out at the restaurant the other day. I'm trying to ask myself: do I really need to do that now? Could it wait? In general, as a family we are trying to make meals phone-free zones. 

They also noticed that sometimes families shared use of the device--and had fun. We've definitely experienced that. My eldest is good at finding really funny YouTube videos that she shares with us (like the one of the squirrel trying to hide a nut in a Bernese Mountain Dog's fur--we have a Berner and could totally imagine it happening). There's the app Heads Up! which is a great family game. There are lots of ways to turn the phone into something that brings you together instead of separating you.

You can always play with Siri. Try asking her what the fox says.

Is there something you'd like me to write about? Leave me a message on 
my Facebook page--and "like" the page for links to all my MD Mama blogs as well as my blogs on Thriving and Huffington Post. 

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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