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Smartphones can Negatively Affect Parenting Skills, Study Reports

Update Date: Mar 10, 2014 11:10 AM EDT

Even though smartphones were developed to make people's lives easier, several studies have found that these devices can negatively impact lives as well. Many studies have tied smartphone use to sleeping problems, sleep deprivation and obesity. Now, in a new study, researchers are blaming smartphones for distracting parents from actual parenting at the dinner table.

"We know from decades of research that face-to-face interactions are important for cognitive, language and emotional development. Before mobile devices existed, mealtime would've been a time where we would've seen those interactions," said study author Dr. Jenny Radesky, a fellow in developmental-behavioral pediatrics at Boston Medical Center according to Philly.

For this study, the researchers examined a total of 55 groups of people who were eating at fast food restaurants throughout the Boston-area in Massachusetts. The groups were made up of at least one adult and at least one child who appeared to be younger than 10. The researchers observed the interaction between the adult and the child, including whenever the caregiver used a smartphone.

Radesky's team found that 40 of the caregivers had taken their phone out at some time throughout the meal. A few of them had placed the phones on the tables but did not check them. Nine caregivers had checked their phones intermittingly. Another small group of caregivers held onto their phones while performing other tasks. The last group made up of 16 caregivers, however, used their phones constantly throughout the meal. These adults were focused on their devices while eating and talking.

"What stood out was that in a subset of caregivers using the device almost through the entire meal, how negative their interactions could become with the kids," Radesky stated according to TIME.

When the researchers analyzed the children, they found that many of the children of caregivers who rarely used their smartphones were able to entertain themselves. These kids were busy eating, playing with a toy or talking to another child or other children at their table. Children of caregivers who were absorbed in their phones, however, acted differently. The researchers noted that some of the kids appeared to act up in order to seek attention. These moments were initially ignored by the caregivers, followed by scolding in some of the cases.

"Children are going to get X amount of your attention every day. Your best bet is to give that attention in a positive way, or they may start to seek it in a negative way," said Dr. Rahil Briggs, director of pediatric behavioral health services at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. "We're just learning how to think about exposure to media in small children, and now parents are being distracted by their phones. We can't turn a blind eye to this present absence."

The researchers concluded that caregivers, regardless of their relationship to the child, should try to pay more attention to the child, especially during mealtime when meaningful conversations can occur. Radesky is currently working with the American Academy of Pediatrics to draft guidelines for parental smartphone use in front of children.

The study was published in Pediatrics.

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