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Mobile Phone Use Mostly Discourages Interaction Between Parents and Young Children, Research Suggests
“Mobile phone use in public places can prevent parents and young children from turning social outings into opportunities to build their relationships,” said Associate Dean for Programs and study coauthor Dafna Lemish.
“Mobile phone use in public places can prevent parents and young children from turning social outings into opportunities to build their relationships,” said Associate Dean for Programs and study coauthor Dafna Lemish.

We’ve all seen parents busy talking or scrolling on their mobile phones while they are out with their young children in parks, playgrounds, restaurants, coffee shops, and many other locations. How does this behavior impact their children?

“Mobile phone use in public places can prevent parents and children from turning social outings into opportunities to build their relationships and broaden social knowledge,” according to Associate Dean of Programs Dafna Lemish and her colleague Nelly Elias at Ben Gurion University, Israel.

With the assistance of Diana Floegel, Ph.D.’21 and Dan Delmonaco, ‘19, who earned a Master of Information degree at SC&I, Lemish and Elias conducted a cooperative qualitative study in the United States and Israel evaluating mobile phone use on parent-children interactions in public places.

Their findings, Lemish said, “call both for intervention programs aimed at raising parents’ awareness of the potential negative outcomes of significant phone use during parent-child quality time, and for family practitioners such as pediatricians to both inform as well as advocate for parents to set phones aside, and pay attention to eye contact, positive affect, attentiveness, responsiveness, and interactions with their children.”

Their findings, Lemish said, “call both for intervention programs aimed at raising parents’ awareness of the potential negative outcomes of significant phone use during parent-child quality time, and for family practitioners such as pediatricians to both inform as well as advocate for parents to set phones aside, and pay attention to eye contact, positive affect, attentiveness, responsiveness, and interactions with their children.”

While the research team was collecting data, Lemish said, they observed families with young children in a variety of public places that required periods of waiting and thus resulted in high mobile phone use (such as playgrounds, eateries, airports, laundromats).

“It was the rare case that we found parent and child playing together on a phone app, watching a video, designing a message, or otherwise using the phone to get closer to each other,” Lemish said. “When parents escorted their children to the playground, they were often immersed in their mobile phone bubble, to the point of often losing track of what their children were doing and ignoring their bids for attention.

“In various eating places (food courts, restaurants, coffee-places) parents were often giving their phones to their children to keep them busy while they were engaged in social interactions with other adults, to soothe temper tantrums in public, to help feed the child, or to distract from other activities.”

Lemish said she and her coauthors developed terms such as “the digital bottle, the digital playpen, and the digital pacifier” to describe some of these social uses of phones that they observed and that resulted in discouraging interaction between parent and child.

Their most recent publication of the five that came out of this four-year study, “Food for Thought: Parent-Child Face-to-Face Communication and Mobile Phone Use in Eateries,” also written with Galit Rovner-Lev, an Israeli Ph.D. student, and published July 29, 2021 in the Journal of Family Communication, aimed at exploring whether and how mobile phone use during family meals in public eateries impacts family communication.

Findings from this study, they wrote, “further demonstrate that mobile phone use during family mealtimes in public provides another example of both the positive and negative outcomes of using phones and tablets during family outings, in that it can either facilitate or prevent parents and children from communicating and building their relationships while on family outings, depending upon how the phones are used.”

However, their findings do not mean they recommend the over-protective parenting style sometimes referred to as “helicoptering,” Lemish said.

“Phubbing” (a combination of phone use and snubbing) and “sharenting” (i.e., parents’ overuse of social media to share their children’s pictures, videos, and facts from their daily lives were particularly problematic, the researchers noted.  

Phubbing is likely to make children feel excluded, disconnected, and socially distanced from their parents, while sharenting also takes place at the expense of parents’ communication with their children while also ignoring their children’s needs, emotions, and even privacy rights, they found.

“We observed parents posing with their children for a ‘happy family’ selfie that they then posted immediately on social media, but once the picture was taken, the ‘happy family’ members all resumed their own separate activities,” Lemish said.

However, their findings do not mean they recommend the over-protective parenting style sometimes referred to as “helicoptering,” Lemish said.

“It is entirely appropriate for parents to engage in activities that do not put their child at the center of their attention for every single moment of their shared leisure time. Furthermore, we expect children to develop skills of independence, emotional self-control, and patience. However, our findings suggest that many parents were unavailable for their children for extended periods and sometimes even for the entire stay in the eatery.

“Our study calls for parents’ attention to the potential consequences of their phone use during family meals outside the home and suggests that these occasions could be better used as opportunities for children’s development and family togetherness,” Lemish said.

Their research is funded by the Bi-National U.S-Israel Foundation.

List of Publications:

Elias, N., Lemish, D., & Rovner, G. (2021). Food for thought:  Parent-child face-to-face communication and mobile phone use in eateries. Journal of Family Communication, 21(4)

Floegel, F., Elias, N. & Lemish, D. (2021). Young children’s mobile device use in public  Places: Immersion, distraction, and co-use. Studies in Media and Communication, 9(2), 30-40

Elias, N. & Lemish, D. (2021). Parents’ social uses of mobile phones: The case of eateries in two national contexts. International Journal of Communication, 15(19), 2086-2104

Elias, N., Lemish, D., Dalyot, S., & Folegel, D. (2021) “Where are you?” An observational exploration of parental technoference in public places. Journal of Children and Media, 15(3), 376-388.  

Lemish, D., Elias, N., & Floegel, D. (2020). “Look at me!” Parental use of mobile phones at the playground. Mobile Media & Communication, 8(2), 170-187.

More information about the Communication Department is on the Rutgers School of Communication and Information website

 

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