New research: The impact of mobile devices on family relationships

Scientists from Detroit, Michigan have been on the forefront of cerebral palsy research, and the city also has some researchers who are doing incredible work in the area of family studies.  Recently, researchers from Boston have done some preliminary research regarding the harmful impact of using mobile devices during meal time with family, and the data is alarming.

Family meals are a time for the family to be together, have conversations and bond with each other.  Research has shown that routine family meals can give younger children a sense of belonging in the family and a feeling of security.  Older children also prefer eating meals with their family.  In a 2011 study from Columbia University, 71% of teenagers said they consider conversing  and catching up with family to be the best part of family meals.

Indeed, research shows that eating regular meals as a family improves communication among family members, and children who eat regular family meals get better grades and are more motivated in school, and get along better with other people.

But what if, during mealtime, parents are staring down at their cell phones and making little or no eye contact and conversation with their children?  Researchers from Boston Medical Center / Boston University have begun to investigate this subject.  In their study, the researchers observed family interaction in fast food restaurants.  Researchers wrote detailed notes about their observations, describing all aspects of cell phone and tablet use and child / caregiver interaction and behavior.  The study will be published in the April issue of Pediatrics.

Researchers found that a third of the caregivers used their phones continuously during mealtime.  Seventy-three percent of caregivers used their phone at least once during the meal, and more than 15 % used their mobile devices near the end of the meal.  The researchers said they found it “striking that during caregiver absorption with devices, some children appeared to accept the lack of engagement and entertained themselves, whereas others showed increasing bids for attention that were often answered with negative parent responses.”  In fact, caregivers who were highly focused on their mobile devices “often responded harshly to child misbehavior.”

Details of the observations are very sad.  Here are some of the excerpts from the researchers’ written observations:

  • “Caregiver is looking at the phone, nodding a little while the child talks but not looking back at her or responding with words.”
  • “Caregiver doesn’t appear to be listening but says a few words in response every once in a while.”
  • Researchers also observed a caregiver kicking a child’s foot under the table and another caregiver pushing a little boy’s hands away when he kept trying to lift the caregiver’s face up from looking at the screen of the mobile device.

This research is very troubling indeed.  Previous research has shown that a lack of eye contact and interaction with a child can reduce the parent /child bond.  Parents who focus on mobile devices instead of their children are giving up important quality time and are risking harm to their bond with the child.  In many of the observations made by the researchers, the child would act our or do something to try and get the attention of the caregiver.  And most of the time, the caregivers who were really engaged in playing with or looking at their mobile devices either ignored their children or acted harshly in response to the child.

This study is only the beginning of this type of research, and its purpose was to describe relationships between cell phone and tablet use and caregiver/child interaction.  It brings up interesting questions, such as whether mobile devices are so absorbing that it makes it difficult to be “present” and engaged when spending time with children.  What are the long term effects on children when their parents are physically present, but the mom or dad’s thoughts are somewhere else?


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If your child was diagnosed with a permanent disability, such as cerebral palsy, hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE), periventricular leukomalacia (PVL), intellectual disabilities or developmental delays, the award winning attorneys at ABC Law Centers can help.   We have helped children throughout the country obtain compensation for lifelong treatment, therapy and a secure future, and we give personal attention to each child and family we represent.  Our nationally recognized firm has numerous multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements that attest to our success, and no fees are ever paid to our firm until we win your case.  Email or call Reiter & Walsh ABC Law Centers at 888-419-2229 for a free case evaluation.


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