(BOSTON) -- The alluring glow of smartphones affects our skills as parents, and kids take notice, a new study found. Researchers from Boston Medical Center went undercover in 15 local fast food restaurants to observe nature’s parenting playground. Watching silently from a distance, they observed the interactions between family members, noting in particular the reactions children had when mom or dad punched away at the portable keys.
“It’s just like people watching, basically, except we were taking very detailed notes about observations,” said Dr. Jenny S. Radesky, a fellow in developmental behavioral pediatrics at Boston Medical Center and lead author of the study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics.
Parents in 40 of the 55 families observed were absorbed in their mobile devices, according to the study. They seemed more distracted when they were typing and making swiping motions with the fingers than when making phone calls. And almost a third of the parents used their devices continuously throughout their meal.
Some children appeared unaffected and ate their meals in silence. Other children were more provocative, with one set of siblings singing “Jingle bells, Batman smells” to get their dad’s attention.
The degree to which the device was used, however, did not necessarily directly relate to the way in which the child reacted, according to the study.
While the findings are far from conclusive when it comes to the impact of parents’ mobile device use around kids, it suggests the tech-savvy world we live in extends beyond the perimeters of the pixelated screen.
“The conclusion I wouldn’t draw from the study, is that we need to completely remove these devices when we are with our children,” Radesky said. “But it does raise the issue that we need to create boundaries for these devices when we are with our children.”
Dr. Gene Beresin, executive director of the MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, agreed.
“Mealtimes in certain cultures are generally times when children make attachments,” said Beresin, who was not involved in the study. “It’s not a time when one is typically working.
“When we eat, when we snuggle, when a parent puts a child to bed -- these are important times when parent-child connectedness is important,” he said. “It sends a message to the child to pay attention to each other, to establish some intimacy.”
Beresin said the advice to parents is simple.
“The moral of the story is be observant,” he said. “Be mindful. Be aware. Both in what you are doing and in what you are teaching your children.”
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