Smartphones distract parents too, studies show

New studies from the American Academy of Pediatrics show how mobile devices impact people of all ages.

REUTERS/Dado Ruvic
A man holds a smartphone, with the Google Maps app open, in Sarajevo.

Any parent of an American teenager can tell you how hard it can be to pry their child's attention away from a smartphone screen. But it turns out that mobile devices can be a big distraction for grownups, too.  

New research identifies cell phone use as a significant source of distraction for caregivers who are actively supervising young children. These findings, part of a larger series of smartphone studies conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics, were presented last week at the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting in San Diego. Armed with surveys and experimental data, the AAP hopes to bring attention to the impact of mobile devices on children and adults alike.

In one study, authored by physician Ruth Milanaik, researchers observed 50 pairs of caregivers and children in seven New York playgrounds. Over the course of 371 two-minute episodes, researchers found that guardians were distracted 74 percent of the time. Electronic devices were responsible for 30 percent of those distractions.

While mobile devices were a significant source of distraction, they were only the second largest – 33 percent of distractions were caused by conversations with other parents. Moreover, children engaged in risky behaviors – like throwing sand and pushing other children – regardless of parental supervision. But while some incidents are inevitable learning experiences for children, study authors say that attentiveness is key to preventing serious injury.

“Caregivers in general are doing a fine job supervising their children on the playground. However, increased awareness of limiting electronic distractions and other activities that may interfere with supervision should be considered,” Milanaik said in a press release.

Driven to distraction

Another study in the AAP presentation aimed to break down an apparent teenage epidemic – texting and driving.

About 10 percent of US high school students reported driving under the influence of alcohol, but more than three times as many admitted to texting while driving. Most states have some kind of law against the practice, but it is unclear whether legislation is an effective deterrent. Analysis of the CDC’s 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, for example, seemed to indicate that it wasn’t. But by cross-referencing with data from 2013, researchers found new trends.

In 2013, texting and driving rates dropped by about 10 percent in states that adopted bans. The drop seems to suggest that the bans are working, although public education may have also contributed. But the report wasn’t all good news: older, more experienced teenagers were five times more likely than new drivers to text while driving.

“The technology to stop [texting while driving] exists today,” co-author and New York pediatrician Andrew Adesman says. “It is just a matter of whether there is enough will on the part of consumers (and corporations) to block this feature in a moving vehicle – or somehow, using a different approach, identify if the phone holder is actively engaged. Although parents can find apps to control this, the better solution is if the phone does not allow texting while driving as a factory setting.”

Such measures would be a tough sell – they might prevent drivers from texting, but they would also render passengers unable to use their phones. According to Dr. Adesman, that’s the price of safety.

Parents’ concerns

It’s not enough just to have data. Before pediatricians can make recommendations, they need to understand the parent’s mindset. So Jenny Radesky, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Boston Medical Center, led an in-depth qualitative study to gauge how parents felt about their kids’ smartphone use.

Dr. Radesky’s team conducted interviews with 35 parent groups, spending up to two hours with each to discuss their thoughts, feelings, and personal experiences. This way, researchers could extract common themes and concerns from the interviews, rather than impose preconceived hypotheses on the interviewees.

“It's a method often used to explore a novel topic (like mobile media) when little is known about it, and it helps generate research questions,” Radesky says. “It's also really important to understand parents' perspectives and experience when trying to design pediatric guidance, especially around a sometimes highly charged topic like media use; otherwise we run the risk of being irrelevant or ignored.”

Unsurprisingly, parents were concerned that excessive digital media would impact their child’s social skills and behavior. But Radesky and her colleagues also uncovered some less-obvious common themes.

“The more novel concerns expressed by parents included worrying that their children would become too dependent on being ‘fed’ information by digital media, rather than having the creativity or self-determination to figure out the world around them on their own; other parents worried that all of the marketing around digital media and advertisements on free apps would train their child to be a ‘consumer’ at too young of an age,” Radesky said. “It's also worth noting that many parents believed that apps are educational, while in the scientific community there is much more skepticism about what commercially available ‘educational’ apps can teach.”

Empowerment in the digital age

Even though researchers are still debating the concrete effects of mobile media, there is an air of progress to the AAP studies. Cinnamon Dixon, a pediatrician at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, led the development of an app called iBsafe. Her team showed that a game app geared towards kindergarten-age children could effectively improve their knowledge of bicycle and dog bite safety.

Beth Ebel, director of the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center, demonstrated that certain technologies – like an internal video camera triggered by hard braking, fast cornering, and vehicular impact – lowered risky behaviors in teen drivers.

Meanwhile, Radesky is researching ways to parent confidently in the digital age.

“I’m currently working on studies exploring the issue of parent empowerment around setting digital media limits in their family, especially in parents of young children with behavioral difficulties,” Radesky said. “I would also like to work with colleagues to evaluate some of the commercially available apps so that we can help guide parents towards higher-quality digital resources for their children, since it was clear from our interviews that many parents don't know how to find this information.”

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