Mobile Device Use During Meals Leads to Fewer Interactions with Children

According to a new study by Boston University School of Medicine researchers.

It’s no secret we are all obsessed with our phones, and countless articles have been written on the the health and relationship risks associated with said obsession. Now, a new study by Boston University School of Medicine researchers says that mothers who use their mobile devices during meals with young children are less likely to have “verbal, nonverbal, and encouraging interactions” with their kids.

Previous research has shown that mealtime interactions have a positive effect on a child’s health, especially when it comes to lowering risk for obesity, asthma, and behavioral issues. But, these findings have also said that using a smartphone can diminish the benefits.

The new study, published online in the journal, Academic Pediatrics, looked at the balance between using electronic devices and interacting with children during mealtime. The researchers found that “mothers with the most mobile device use had significantly fewer verbal interactions with their children than mothers who had no or negligible use while eating.”

According to the study:

Maternal use of mobile devices was associated with 20 percent fewer verbal and 39 percent fewer nonverbal interactions. Mothers with the greatest mobile device use made significantly fewer encouragements toward their children. During presentation of unfamiliar foods, which is usually stressful for young children, mothers with mobile device use showed 26 percent fewer verbal interactions and 48 percent fewer nonverbal interactions, suggesting that these moms may have been less “available” to help their child through this novel experience.

The study’s corresponding author Jenny Radesky, MD, clinical instructor in Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics at BUSM and a former fellow in pediatrics at Boston Medical Center, says this study is important because nonverbal interactions help develop emotional relationships, and without this kind of interaction, emotional connection is diminished.

“We theorize that mobile device use was associated with a decreased number of maternal verbal and nonverbal interactions through decreased awareness of the child’s social cues while the mother’s gaze and/or attention was directed at a device,” Radesky says. “As mobile device ownership and use becomes nearly universal, these results may have important implications regarding how parents balance attention between devices and interactions with their children during daily life and during meals in particular, which are an important protective routine in pediatric health.”

Moving forward, the researchers are calling for more guidance for plugged in parents and caregivers to learn to use technology in ways that will help—not harm—a person’s emotional health.