Screen-obsessed parents depriving kids of interaction and development opportunities: study

Stock image.
Stock image.

PARENTS are depriving their children of vital interactions and development opportunities by spending too much time on their mobile devices while looking after them, according to new PhD research.

Monash University Master of Educational and Developmental Psychology and PhD candidate Carrie Ewin says her study shows kids are in real danger of losing their primary care givers to mobile devices – and this could have long-term consequences.

Ms Ewin conducted an observational study of 70 parents using smartphones and tablets while looking after their kids at food courts and play areas in Melbourne shopping centres.

She watched the behaviour of the parents to observe how they interacted with their children while using their devices, and also observed how the children reacted to their parents.

She took note of the tapping, swiping and speaking habits of parents as well as their kids’ behaviour, body language and conversations.

“The reason for conducting an observational study was to help understand how parents use mobile devices and how kids respond, in real every day moments,” Ms Ewin said.

“Very little research has investigated this issue in Australia and mobile devices are now a staple in our lives so it’s important that we understand how they affect parent-child relationships. Many parents honestly have no idea how much time they spend on their phones when their children are with them.”

Early findings have shown that 82 per cent of the parents observed used their mobile device for more than 10 minutes, with one spending almost two hours glued to their screen.

Parents observed also missed signs of danger such as their kids falling or wandering off.

“One parent was so engrossed in their device – for more than 30 minutes – that they didn’t notice their son hitting play equipment or crawling over furniture,” Ms Ewing said.

“Another care giver didn’t see their baby standing up and falling out of a pram.

“Another child was observed sitting silently and fiddling with a strap, without sharing any conversation, laughter or smiles, for 20 minutes until she tried to get her father’s attention by giving him a hug. Even then, the parent still didn’t look up.”

Some children were observed to attract attention by behaving provocatively, such as climbing over furniture, calling out and provoking their siblings.

The majority of parents’ responses were flippant or ignored their kids’ needs, according to Ms Ewin.

“This study reveals that parents struggle to engage with their children when they have a mobile device and often model the absorbed and distracted behaviour that children are criticised for,” she said.

“This research calls on parents to balance their device use and actively engage with their children during everyday moments like eating and playing.”

Dr Andrea Reupert, from Monash University’s Faculty of Education, is supervising Ms Ewin’s PhD project and said the research was significant.

“Given the important role that parents have in the development of young children’s language, social, emotional and cognitive competence, it is critical we understand what influences parents to interact positively and what might impede or distract positive parent-child interactions,” Dr Reupert said.

The study is due to be completed by 2020.