By Alexa Bigwarfe


They are certainly alluring, but those electronic devices, used in excess and at the wrong times, can be damaging to our relationship with our children. It probably comes as no surprise that parents are more distracted than ever in this day of smartphones, tablets, e-readers and so forth. However, what is surprising, and a bit scary, is the new information released in a study by Boston Medical Center, that parents are ignoring their children and are more likely to punish their child more severely if they are disrupted by their child while using their device.


An article summarizing the results of the study was published in the online edition of the journal Pediatrics (“Patterns of Mobile Device Use by Caregivers and Children During Meals in Fast Food Restaurants,”March 10). The implications of the study are wide, including an overall impact on children’s development because of the limited face-to-face interaction between parents and their children when mobile devices are overused. Quite simply: parents absorbed in their electronic devices ignore their children more and react more negatively when disturbed by their child.


The study examined the interaction of parents and children at fast food restaurants during mealtime. Traditionally, meal time is when many parents and children interact most. But, with the rise of the smartphone, that interaction is being rapidly replaced by children watching their parents interact on electronic devices. The researchers found that 73 percent of the parents checked their device at least once during the meal, and one third of the adults used them continuously. Parents reacted negatively when interrupted by their children; in fact, one mother even kicked her child under the table when the child tried to get her attention.


Dr. Jenny Radesky, a fellow in developmental and behavioral pediatrics at the center and lead author of the study, was interviewed for Time Magazine (“Don’t Text While Parenting —It Will Make You Cranky,”March 10). “What stood out was how negative their interactions could become with the kids. [There were] a lot of instances where there was very little interaction, harsh interaction or negative interaction between the adults and children,”she told Time.


Another consequence of overuse by parents is bad behavior by the children trying to gain the attention of their parents. The children in this study were observed singing obnoxious lyrics, putting their hands in their parent’s faces or other actions that provoked their parents to respond negatively.


Furthermore, children learn their social skills by observing those around them. If parents are too absorbed in their mobile device to interact with their children on a personal level, where will our children learn their social skills?


Since the conclusion of the study, Radesky has been working with the American Academy of Pediatrics to develop some guidelines for the usage of mobile devices in front of children, similar to the guidelines that were set for the amount of television that is appropriate to children.


Parents need to understand the long term impacts on their children when they are ignored or responded to harshly while the parent is texting, facebooking, or otherwise engaged with an electronic device.


Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson, a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital and author of the Seattle Mama Doc blog, encourages parents to keep the electronic devices away from the dinner table and to set boundaries including not using the devices during meals, story and bed times. Consider taking even one step further and instilling “wireless weekends”when possible, to devote your attention to your relationship with your children rather than your mobile device.


Alexa Bigwarfe is the mother to three small children. Often enticed by her email, twitter or Facebook, she has pledged to spend less time with her electronic companions and more time focusing on her children.

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