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Smartphones and Parent-Child Interactions

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT

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Smart Phones: Positives and Negatives

For adults in the 21st century, smart phones make up a big part of day-to-day life. Whether we use them for work or for socializing, most people don’t leave home without them. In fact, we often hear someone say, “I’m lost without my phone – it’s how I run my life.”

In addition to making traditional phone calls, busy parents and working professionals alike rely on smart phones for texting, emailing, and scheduling. They use them to get directions, find restaurants, and to surf the Internet.  With smart phones we can easily access document sharing applications, such as Dropbox and Google Docs. This allows users to update and amend word files, spreadsheets, and images right from the palm of their hand.

Smart Phones Make Life Easier

Smart phones represent amazing tools capable of things that just recently would have seemed like something out of Star Trek. 50 years ago, the kind of computing power found in a smart phone would have taken up the entire floor of an office building. 30 years ago, it would have taken several rooms. 25 years ago the same computing power required a wall of machinery. 10 years ago you need a laptop, at least. Now they make a combined computer/telephone complete with a readable display smaller than a sandwich. It’s no wonder smart phones fascinate us, because they are truly incredible when considered in context.

Smart Phones Distract You

An observational study conducted in the greater Boston area analyzed the use of these devices by parents and caregivers in a typical daily situation: while eating out together at a fast food restaurant. They found that smart phones tend to distract parents and caregivers from the children in front of them. They also found that the behavioral consequences for the children are not always the most desirable.

Attention, Absorption, and Acting Out

The data from the study in Boston showed that smart phone use during meal time is more common than uncommon. Of the families/caregiver-child groups observed, almost 73 percent of the adults took out smart phones during the course of the meal. Of those, 30 percent used the smart phones almost continuously during their time seated at the table. Less than 1 percent just had the phone sitting on the table.

The researchers classified the 30 percent of adults who continuously used their smart phones as “absorbed” in their phone use. This meant that their eyes focused almost exclusively on the phone during their time at the table as they texted or swiped the screen.

How Kids React to Parents “Absorbed” by Smart Phones

When the children accompanying them made any type of communication bid—either touch or talk—the majority of responses from the absorbed adults took one of the following patterns:

  • The adult did not respond to the bid at all.
  • The caregiver responded without taking his/her eyes off the phone.
  • The parent showed a delayed reaction.
  • The adult momentarily took his/her eyes off the phone and responded with a robotic affect.
  • The caregiver showed a delayed reaction, then responded with a scolding tone.

The majority of the children accompanying the fully absorbed adults showed an escalating pattern of attention-seeking behavior.

They touched the adults, attempted to physically lift the adult’s faces from the phone screens, got up from the table and moved around the restaurant, raised their volume, sang songs, played with food and engaged in play-type behaviors not typically associated with sitting at a table during mealtime.

A small number of children seemed to accept the adult’s absorption with the smart phone and did not attempt to engage the adult in conversation or attempt to get their attention.

Parenting, Caregiving, and Smart Phones

Though the study did show that the greater proportion of adults who took our their phones during the time they were observed (70 percent) were not fully absorbed in them, the data collected by the researchers clarify some points that are intuitive for most parents, caregivers and child professionals. Children recognize – emotionally or intellectually – when parents do not give the attention they need. When they need attention, they exhibit testing/limit-pushing behavior until they get it.

The data further show that smart phones can be disproportionately distracting and can sometimes result in parents and caregivers diverting their attention from where it is most needed: on the children with them.

The Good and The Bad

While smart phones allow some parents and caregivers to get away from work and spend time with children, the study reminds us that kids generally don’t have the ability to intellectualize this fact.

When children see an adult paying attention to his or her phone instead of them, they will feel it and probably won’t have the wherewithal to remind themselves of something like, “I should be happy just to be with him/her right now.”

As wonderful as smart phones are, parents, caregivers, and child professionals need to be mindful of how they use them around children and to remember that what kids want to be seen, recognized and validated –things that can’t be done while staring at a tiny screen.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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