Welcome to my blog, which speaks to parents, professionals who work with children, and policy makers. I aim to show how contemporary developmental science points us on a path to effective prevention, intervention, and treatment, with the aim of promoting healthy development and wellbeing of all children and families.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Take new smartphone use study with a hefty dose of empathy for parents

A new study documenting the ubiquitous use of smartphones by parents at fast food restaurants with their young children is getting a lot of media attention. From Time magazine there is this headline: " Don't Text While Parenting- It Will Make You Cranky." "Put Down that Cellphone" from NBC. "Parents on Smartphone Ignore Their Kids," from ABC News.

I doubt that anyone is surprised by the findings of this study. People everywhere are on their smartphones all the time. In the arena of parenting, it is important to call attention to the impact of this behavior. There is extensive evidence that face-to-face interaction is critical for healthy emotional development. Mealtime offers an important opportunity for this type of interaction, especially in today's fast-paced culture.

However, I worry about the parent blaming tone of these headlines. Rather than saying, "This is bad, don't do it," perhaps we should be curious about why parents are using smartphones in this way.

One answer lies the increasing recognition of the addictive nature of these devices. Everyone, not just parents in fast food restaurants, is using smartphones all the time. The other may lie in the fact that parents, especially parents of young children, often feel alone, stressed and overwhelmed. Putting these two together and the allure of the screen becomes understandable.

The American Academy of Pediatrics press release states:
The study raises several questions for future research, including ...what are the long-term effects on child development from caregivers who frequently become absorbed with a device while spending time with their children.
I think we already know the answer to this question. I wonder if another important question might read: "How do we support parents in being more fully present with their young children, given the combination of high stress and an easy available, socially acceptable addictive device?"


  1. Thank you for writing this. I struggle with limiting my screen time and the screen time my children get, but I am enraged by the idea that handheld devices ought to be banned or criminalized. We haven't even criminalized hitting your children! I think our culture is kind of sick when it comes to families. We see a huge promotion of parenting and family life marketed every day, yet we also criticize parents and families all the time and offer little support. I'm talking about the way the right wing, for example, markets itself as pro-life and pro-family, yet cuts services heavily and fights viciously against health care reform. It's frustrating and it grinds down families as they struggle to live up to supernatural expectations.

  2. This is something that I struggle with. I have horrible guilt every time I look down and realize that I have been staring at my phone yet again. *sigh*

  3. And I see this in schools....adults (Teachers, assistants) looking at their phones. Personally, I know how this feels to my husband...I play "Words With Friends" and he makes it known that he hates it when I pull out my phone....he feels neglected! What about kids who do not have the words?

  4. I totally understand limiting the use of phones around kids. As a stay at home mom, however, I need use my phone as a much-needed outlet to the adult world, either through talking on the phone or through social media. I used to critique those moms using their phone while their kids are on the playground but now I understand it. I also use my phone for looking up activities for the kids but I try to do it while they are occupied.

    1. Same here. We put away phones for mealtimes, but I read a criticism of parents using their phones at the playground and my response is: My child has my full attention 90% of the day, do NOT criticize ME for taking advantage of the time that he will play independently on the playground to communicate with other adults, or look something up that interests ME. Sometimes it's the only break I get all day!

      Not exactly what this article is talking about though, & definitely something to be mindful of.

  5. I felt guilt and then thought about my parents and how they would always have their nose in a paperback or newspaper while we were playing. It is just our generation of entertainment and while there is excess to everything, I don't see a problem with using it.

  6. I think it has to depend what we're doing with our phones. If we are playing games or surfing Facebook randomly, that's one thing to address. But I bet an overwhelming number of users are texting loved ones and supporting each other through daily life, or texting logistics to another friend or other parent for physical meetups or perhaps sending pix or updates on what the kids are doing to a spouse or grandparent. I know I get dirty looks using my phone at the park, and I want to walk up to those people and say "My dad is terminally ill and I'm texting my sister about how he's doing today. Is that a good enough reason?" Don't assume celphone users are just escaping to nothingness: most of us use it to maintain connections and seek support, and are tools for maintaining loving relationships for the entire family.

  7. Having the phone to connect with friends during idle time that I am usually very impatient during has made me a better patient parent. It never interferes with our conversations. Once in awhile it reminds me of something I wanted to bring up. The only thing my facebook time does interfere with is my reading time. I do read fewer books now and I'm very aware of that, but I read more parenting articles such as this one.

  8. Thank you for writing this - I'm writing as someone who battled an addiction to chat rooms when my kids were pre-teen age - so I completely understand the draw. Having gone through a deep healing process, I still carry with me the regret and sadness of having pushed my kids away so I could 'chat' to this day -and my kids are now grown and I have grandchildren. Please, PLEASE, listen - you will NEVER get back the time you have right now with those children - never! I realized my addiction stemmed from a deeper problem - loneliness - even in the midst of my busy family life, complete with husband - I felt deeply alone. Addictions are a symptom - if you feel you have one, there IS help out there. Don't make your kids pay - as I did. You may carry the regret for a lifetime :/

  9. I agree with the other posters- for a lot of us, the phone/internet is the only grown up interaction we are getting most of the day. Also, some of us are doing business connecting- so we can stay home instead of having our kids in daycare away from us. I would rather have my daughter play quietly while I get on the net than have her away from me 11 hours a day to make my money.(not judging anyone else, just my reality.)

  10. Here is the link to the original study. It was an observational study of caregivers and children in fast food restaurants. The results show that at times caregivers are more absorbed in their devices than their children and tend to show more irritable behavior.My understanding is that the aim of the study was to call attention to the behavior and its possible impact. The way it was presented by the media was more harsh and judgmental.