lego iPhoneA new observational study illuminates some ugly truths about parental/caregiver use of cell phones and smartphones at the dinner table. More than anything else, the observations serve up a hearty reminder that cell phones are embedded into our lives (see my son’s “Lego iPhone” as case in point) and that we have to be diligent in making digital breaks a habit. As phones and devices get more useful, they become harder and harder from which to separate.

Reading the new study I felt a little queasy for two reasons.

ONE: there are moments I fail my children in this regard. I think you’re fooling yourself if you don’t think you are (if you own a cell phone, smartphone, tablet, or computer). I would suspect most parents who read the study see a bit of themselves in there. I certainly remember (vividly) the day that my then 3 year-old son wanted my attention while I was working on my phone. He must have asked and gotten no response. He then literally put his head between my cell phone and my face to get my attention. Talk about a wake-up call…

TWO: I really hate to read about children becoming either helpless and/or giving up on trying for their parents’ attention (this was observed in the study). I also hated reading about children who kept vying for their parents attention and then get shot down and yelled at for interrupting. Just so unfair to children during dinner. Parenting really is different now. We weren’t raised by parents with these distractions. The implications on our children’s (and our own) health are just starting to to come into focus.

We’re all vying for a sane balance with our digital devices. The study detailed below offers up some uncomfortable observations and fuel to make changes now:

Smartphone Use In United States

  • Smartphones Everywhere: Over 60% of all adults have smartphones in US. That means most of us are walking around with a mini computer in our pocket. We can ask Siri (or Google) about anything and get responses in seconds.
  • Young adults: Young adults (20’s-30’s) use cell and smartphones most (80% report having access to and using smart phones). Children are therefore being raised mostly by adults who use digital devices to connect!
  • Smartphones Are Awesome: Parents are clearly motivated to have smartphones in US. We can order diapers, connect with daycare, text our partner about what we’ll grab at the grocery store on the way home from work. Our decision to use these devices is exceedingly sensible.

Pediatrics Article on Smartphone Use At Dinner

  1. Researchers watched 55 families at fast food restaurants around the Boston area in differing neighborhoods. They observed families at lunch, afternoon, and dinner time together and recorded field notes. They focused on children and their caregivers that appeared in age from infancy to 10 years of age.
  2. Forty of the 55 caregivers (72%) used a cell phone at the table, some intensely and with deep focus, some with constant use of their device during the meal. See field note examples below.
  3. Researchers observed children vying for caregiver attention and at times getting reprimanded for interrupting the parent on the phone. Some children just gave up on trying to get their parent’s attention and were left to entertain themselves.

An example of the field notes:

Female caregiver brings food over and sits down across from girl,they distribute the food and as [school aged] girl starts eating
caregiver brings out her smartphone. There is no conversation.

Another example where a parent escalates:

Dad [was called Dad by one of the boys] sits down with 3 boys and brings out a smartphone and starts swiping. Boys are talking to
each other, excited, eating, talking, seemingto goof around. The dad looks up at them intermittently when they exclaim something or raise their voices, but otherwise he looks at his phone, which he is holding infrontof him. …I can seethat dad is scrollingthrough small text; looks like a web site, not e-mail. Again dad looks up at them when one of them exclaims something [inaudible] but then goes back to surfing web. At this point he puts the phone down from in front of his face, still holding it in hand, and points to youngest, instructing him on something. Then back to scrolling. …Oldest boy starts singing “jingle bells, Batman smells,” and the others try to join in but don’t know the words. Dad not responding. They’re making up their own words to the song now. Dad calls the little one’s name and speaks in a mildly stern voice, and they stop singing. Little one laughs. Dad continues to hold phone up in front of face, looks over to boys, then back to phone. …The boys start singing “jingle bells, Batman smells” again, and dad looks up and tells them to stop in a firm voice. Then he looks back to phone. …[end of meal] Again in stern voice, seeming exasperated, dad says,“HURRY UP!” and the boys are being silly, licking each other’s cones, climbing on each other and on the divider between booths; dad keeps giving instructions in same tone voice, says something about not getting this again.

Hard to read, certainly.

Distractions from device use can obviously lead to child safety issues (driving, supervision in street) but device-use may change parenting style & temperament, too. In my opinion that’s the big takeaway from this data.

Don’t Text While Parenting– It May Make You Cranky

We have to make digital breaks a habit –it may be the only way.  In my opinion, smart phones are obviously not recommended while driving (I know this seems self-evident but few people really understand the true risk to their children and themselves using their phones at the wheel –as a reminder you’re 23 times more likely to be involved in a near-miss or an accident while texting and driving ( The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute [2009]). Smart phones are also not recommended at the dinner table — a time that we think is valuable to fostering cohesion. Data in the past has linked family meals to reduction odds for overweight (12%), eating unhealthy foods (20%), and disordered eating (35%) and an increase in the odds for eating healthy foods (24%). We have great power as parents at those meals.

I’m A Big Fan Of Digital Breaks Or “Digital Sabbaths”

I am a big proponent of taking digital breaks or even digital sabbaths — and making them a habit — for example, consider a no-phones policy in your house after 6:30pm for everyone, ensure that all phones “sleep” in the kitchen so parents, children and teens don’t use their phones/screens in bed, take 24 hour breaks from digital devices together, and really do your best to leave your computer or smartphone behind (or leave it in airplane mode) while on vacation. Reality is, it’s hard to disconnect from our phones and work and from our connection. I mean it’s obvious why: in a matter of clicks we can connect with an old friend or see a photo of a friend’s new baby, then buy groceries, we can send a text to our partner at work, answer an important email, and then answer a call all without looking up! I love this convenience for parents but I also know as a parent myself I have to be careful.  I mean — this is remarkable time with technology and connection but it is also terrifying how different we live because of our devices.

The world is whizzing by and we must be methodic in creating time and space for creative play, mindfulness, and face-to-face interactions and conversations. We know that children need this nose-to-nose interactions for cognitive, emotional and language development and that screens won’t ever replace that, especially young children.

Sanity With Digital Devices:

  1. Create a “media diet in your home but also a media policy in your home and then enforce it. Live by the same rules you ask your children to live by whenever possible.
  2. No devices at the dinner table, no matter where you are (home, restaurant, friends). Let 20 minutes be sacred. The field notes (in the study) can serve as the rationale for why!
  3. Have media curfew in your home for kids but also at times for yourself when you can make it work. Consider no email/phone use/device use from 5:30pm to 8:30pm. Imagine how delightful it can be to have a bit more silence.
  4. Make hard and fast rules for yourself while driving to avoid texting and talking while at the wheel. Easy tip is to get in the habit of always putting your purse or bag in the back seat to avoid the urge to respond to the beep!
  5. Recognize that there are differences in our level of distraction when using the phone. Writing emails, perusing Facebook, or even having a text-conversation while our children sit waiting is not only rude but unfair and may cause us to act in ways that aren’t our ideal. If you want to engage with online content while with your children, consider co-viewing things and involving them in what captures your attention rather than escaping the moment in front of you.