Put The Cell phone Down During Mealtime, Says Research
Christopher Philip

text_messagingA new study published in the journal Pediatrics found that at least one in three parents stayed on their phones for nearly the entire meal when dining out at a restaurant.

The research team followed caregivers, mostly parents, as they ate at Boston-area fast food restaurants with their children. In total, they unobtrusively examined 55 child-parent groups.

A staggering, 73% of parents or caregivers used their phones at least once during the meal. Just over 15% used their phones near the end of the meal while children still ate and continued as they left the restaurant.

The study found that when kids wanted the parent’s attention, by-in-large, they waited for the parents to look up from their phones, but this didn’t stop them from trying to get their attention in other ways.

“Caregivers who were highly absorbed in their devices seemed to have more negative or less engaged interactions with children,” said behavioral pediatrics expert Dr. Jenny Radesky.

The most prevalent factors of cell phone use was decreased responsiveness to children, decreased conversation with the child, the child becomes passive, child escalation to get attention and the caregiver raising their voice to calm children.

Many of the children observed occupied themselves rather than made bids to call attention to themselves when their caregivers were engrossed in their cell phones, notes the researchers. However, when caregivers were continuously absorbed in the device, some children continued to try to elicit attention. Some kids began to limit sitting or use provocative behaviours such as acting out.

Some parents were noted to be so engrossed in their devices that eye contact never met that of their children – even while answering the children’s questions or giving them directions. The caregivers who used devices also had longer latency periods in their responses, or failed to respond at all.

Caregivers also frequently ignored the child’s behaviour for a while and them overreacted with a scolding tone of voice. Other caregivers produced repeated instructions in a “robotic” manner without looking at the children, seemed insensitive to the child’s expressed needs, or used physical responses – one female adult kicked a child’s foot under the table. Another female caregiver pushed a young boy’s hand away as he repeatedly tried to lift her face up from a tablet screen.

In other situations, caregivers provided the device to the children for entertainment purposes or seemingly to control the child’s behaviour. The study notes that smartphones and tablets were given to some toddlers to pacify the children after mealtimes as the child became more active. In other cases, a child became engrossed in one device while the caregiver focused on another. When children didn’t have their own device, the children seemed fascinated by the devices of their caregivers and made attempts to grab or use them and when not successful peer over their shoulders to see what they were doing. Other times, the devices were shared to watch a video jointly.

“We did find it striking”, say the researcher “that during caregiver absorption with
devices, some children appeared to accept the lack of engagement and entertained themselves, whereas others showed increasing bids for attention that were often answered with negative parent responses. Child use of devices was less common (most children were engaged in eating, playing with other children, or playing with “kid’s meal” toys) but appeared to be for the purposes of entertainment or behavior control.”

This is one of the first, if not the first study to examine how cell phone use affects behaviour between children and their caregivers. The researchers admit that new emphasis is required in this area. Mealtimes have traditionally been one time in our busy lives where families could interact more-or less free from outside distraction. Regular shared meals provides time for children to present parents with current issues they are wrestling with, ideas they have come up with, or questions they have about their daily life.

In fact, a recent survey conducted by the UK’s National Literacy Trust found that mealtime chatter can boost a child’s communication skills and their confidence.

The study notes that cell phone use can be used to communicate to older children, but it can also serve to increase screen time or even outsource pacifying, reducing a child’s ability to self-sooth or creatively entertain themselves through inventive play. Cell phones also inhibit eye-contact crucial to emotional development.

Television use at mealtimes were, at one point, creating a big distraction serving to inhibit conversation, now, it seems, that cell phone have replaced that distraction. One of the issues is that the distraction is unidirectional. Kids can’t see what parents are doing and don’t have the ability to share in the moment with their parents. It would be interesting to note the long term effects produced by ignoring children as they starve for guidance from parents and caregivers.

The use of cell phones by caregivers remains largely unknown, but if we can extrapolate anything from the results of cell phone use while driving, we know them to be a huge distraction. Simply put, cell phones and driving don’t mix. Perhaps the same is true for cell phones and parenting.


“Patterns of Mobile Device Use by Caregivers and Children During Meals in Fast Food Restaurants.” Jenny S. Radesky, Caroline J. Kistin, Barry Zuckerman, Katie Nitzberg, Jamie Gross, Margot Kaplan-Sanoff, Marilyn Augustyn and Michael Silverstein. Pediatrics. Originally published online March 10, 2014;

The online version of this article, along with updated information and services, is located on the World Wide Web at: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2014/03/05/peds.2013-3703

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