After relocating to Boston Medical Center, she and two other researchers spent one summer observing 55 different groups of parents and young children eating at fast food restaurants. Many of the caregivers pulled out a mobile device right away, she says. "They looked at it, scrolled on it and typed for most of the meal, only putting it down intermittently."
This was not a scientific study, Radesky is quick to point out. It was more like anthropological observation, complete with detailed field notes. Forty of the 55 parents [73%!] used a mobile device during the meal, and many, she says, were more absorbed in the device than in the kids.
Radesky says that's a big mistake, because face-to-face interactions are the primary way children learn. "They learn language, they learn about their own emotions, they learn how to regulate them," she says. "They learn by watching us how to have a conversation, how to read other people's facial expressions. And if that's not happening, children are missing out on important development milestones."
And, perhaps not surprisingly, when Radesky looked at the patterns in what she and the other researchers observed, she found that kids with parents who were most absorbed in their devices were more likely to act out, in an effort to get their parents' attention. She recalls one group of three boys and their father: The father was on his cellphone, and the boys were singing a song repetitively and acting silly. When the boys got too loud, the father looked up from his phone and shouted at them to stop.
In research for her book, Steiner-Adair interviewed 1,000 children between the ages of 4 and 18, asking them about their parents' use of mobile devices. The language that came up over and over and over again, she says, was "sad, mad, angry and lonely." One 4-year-old called his dad's smartphone a "stupid phone." Others recalled joyfully throwing their parent's phone into the toilet, putting it in the oven or hiding it. There was one girl who said, "I feel like I'm just boring. I'm boring my dad because he will take any text, any call, anytime — even on the ski lift!"