Parents who use smartphones during dinnertime instead of interacting with their children—an increasingly common scenario—may be stunting their children's development, according to a study from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
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For the study, Boston Medical Center researchers observed 55 families eating meals at fast food restaurants in the Boston area and took notes on how family members interacted. Each family had at least one caregiver—a parent, grandparent, or babysitter—and one child under age 10.
Researchers observed 40 caregivers using their smartphones at some point during the meal. Among them:
- 16 caregivers seemed totally absorbed in their phones and used the phones continuously;
- Nine used their phones intermittently and occasionally put them away;
- Some kept their phones on the table, but appeared not to use them; and
- Some kept phones in their hands, but appeared not to use them.
Meanwhile, children engaged in a range of activities—playing with a toy, talking to another child, or eating—while their caregiver used the phone.
Researchers specifically pulled out insights on children whose caregivers were absorbed in their smartphones. In some cases, children seemed to have accepted their caregiver's behavior; in other cases, children would act up in an attempt to grab the adult's attention. In response, some caregivers ignored their behavior while many others scolded the children—often without even looking up from their smartphones.
Lack of interaction could hurt vocabulary development
Although the researchers say they are unsure what effect phone use will ultimately have on the children, their vocabulary may be affected by the lack of interaction, according to Rahil Briggs, director of pediatric behavioral health services at Montefiore Medical Center.
"The single most powerful predictor of a child's vocabulary is conversations with the child [and] dinnertime is an important time for those conversations…if you're absorbed with your phone, that's a lost opportunity," says Briggs, adding, "What really concerned me was those children who appeared to accept this lack of engagement… like they'd given up."
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Lead author Jenny Radesky says, "We know from decades of research that face-to-face interactions are important for cognitive, language and emotional development… We're just learning how to think about exposure to media in small children, and now parents are being distracted by their phones."
Radesky adds that the researchers know smartphones are essential, but "we need to [help] build guidelines for the healthiest ways to use them…It's important for parents to have 'off' time where they tune in only to their child" (Gordon, HealthDay, 3/10).
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