Every parent has experienced both joy and mortification when taking their children out in public. Seeing their child smile and laugh while playing happily at the park is a joy. However, the panic and humiliation involved in trying to subdue their child’s screaming tantrum at the market, is not. But every parent knows that these moments and scenes in public places are teaching opportunities, and through their modeling of good behavior and reinforcing appropriate mood management skills, parents can teach their children on every trip outside their homes.
However, according to Associate Dean for Programs and Professor of Journalism and Media Studies Dafna Lemish, these kinds of teaching opportunities between parents and their children may be changing. Anecdotal observations and some prior research suggest that modern parents might be focusing more on their technology than on their children when in public places.
Lemish, and her co-principal investigator, Professor Nelly Elias of Ben Gurion University in Israel, have recently been awarded a grant that will enable them to explore this phenomena in much greater depth. The grant, from the Binational US-Israel Science Foundation, in the amount of $215,000, will support their proposal titled “Interactive Mobile Media use by Children and their Parents in Public Places: A Cross-Cultural Comparison of Behaviors and Communication Patterns.” Lemish and Elias will conduct research in the U.S. and Israel.
“We do suspect that parents are engaged less with their children in public places since they are using the mobile devices to keep their children busy when they are bored, to manage their emotions (being angry, having a temper tantrum),” Lemish said. “The result is that they are missing opportunities to interact with their children, cultivate mood-management skills, learn about new places, different people, how to behave in public etc. This is not only because the children are engaged with the devices, but also because the parents are. Observations we had in playgrounds in Israel as part of the pilot of this study suggest that many parents get engrossed in their screens and not paying enough attention to their children.”
Lemish and Elias have worked together before, and both are very curious about the data their research will yield. “We have collaborated in the past in a series of studies on the role of media in the lives of immigrant children from the former Soviet Union to Israel,” Lemish said. “Nelly herself has two young children and has been intrigued by this phenomenon. The data collection will be done independently here in N.J. and in Israel but I will be traveling to Israel a couple times to consult with the Israeli team, finalize the method, analyze and compare results, and plan the publications. My co-PI will also come to Rutgers – this is part of the requirement of the funding agency, that the partners visit each other to strengthen the connections between the researchers and their institutions in the two countries.”
One of their questions, going into this research, said Lemish, will be what kind of impacts this new way of parenting will have on today’s children.
“Of course,” Lemish said, “One needs to remember that engagement with mobile devices has also the potential for very positive impact for children – connecting with others, developing audio-visual and fine motor skills, enriching creativity, etc. So it is a question of balance between activity, the context of the use of the device, the child’s characteristics and needs, and what is it that they are attending to on their devices.”
The study has two parts, Lemish explained. The first part will consist of participant observations in public places – so whomever would happen to be there will become the subject of their study. The second part includes an in-depth study of 30 families, which they will recruit individually through public libraries, schools and other public places.
While this is new research for Lemish, she said, “In a way it integrates two previous studies from many years ago – my dissertation (1982) was on viewing television in public places, and my post-doctoral degree (1983) was on the socialization of babies and toddlers to viewing television. It is funny how these two are coming together some 35 years later to the study of young children’s use of mobile devices in public places.”
“The reality of children’s lives today inspired me to conduct this research – watching families in restaurants, playgrounds, airport terminals, reception areas – so many children and parents are now engaged with their mobile devices in what looks like an isolated ‘bubble,’” Lemish said. “It raised my curiosity to understand how is this phenomenon related to the nature of their interactions in public places with their parents, the environment, and other people within it.”