The scenario plays out in restaurants everywhere: Mother or father looks at the smartphone or tablet, swiping, scrolling, reading, while son or daughter sits across the table. Or maybe a child's acting up, and instead of engaging, a parent hands over a tablet to distract the child with a game of Fruit Ninja.
Dr. Jenny Radesky, a fellow in developmental behavioral pediatrics at Boston Medical Center, and the mother of two small children, wanted to find out how common it is for parents to use mobile devices around their kids.
"When I talk about it with siblings or friends, everyone struggles with it," Radesky said. "We want some guidance and balance. We need to stay connected with email, work and friends, and still be present with our kids."
In a small pilot study released today in the journal Pediatrics, Radesky and her team report an answer: Distraction by device is very common indeed.
The researchers surreptitiously watched 55 caregivers, usually a parent, eating and interacting with one or more children, from infants to 10-year-olds, in fast-food restaurants around the Boston area. Of the 55, 40 used a mobile device during the meal. Sixteen of these adults used the mobile device throughout the meal.
Three adults gave a device to a child to keep the youngster occupied, but mostly the grown-ups were absorbed by screens. One adult with a little girl picked up her phone immediately upon sitting down and used it throughout the entire meal.
"The girl keeps eating, then gets up to cross the room to get more ketchup. Caregiver is not watching her do this; she is looking down at the phone…," the field notes showed. "Still no conversation … Now girl's head appears to be looking right at caregiver, and caregiver looks up but not at girl…"
Some children responded with escalating bids for attention. "Oldest boy starts singing 'Jingle bells, Batman smells.'" A father with his phone hushes him. "The boys start singing 'Jingle bells, Batman smells' again, and dad looks up and tells them to stop in a firm voice. Then he looks back to phone."
There has not yet been a comprehensive study on how parents' distraction by digital devices may impact children. But previous research has shown that even newborns are primed to gaze into a mother's eyes seeking social information. This is partly how bonds are formed. Very young children learn about their world largely through face-to-face interactions, vocalizations and touching with parents. They also develop language skills this way.
Gedeon Deák, professor in the department of cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego, who studies human development and parent-child interaction, pointed out that children in many cultures grow up without constant face-to-face eye gazing and vocalization between parent and child, and yet "they don't become sociopaths."
In extreme cases of neglect, with very little interaction between parents or other caregivers and peers, children can develop a variety of pathologies. But observing isolated caregiver-child interactions in a fast-food restaurant doesn't tell you very much about how they might interact at home, Deák said, and children don't need constant face-to-face time.
On the other hand, he wondered how parent distraction and device interruption may affect the development of subtler skills in children, such as empathy and ability to read the vocal, eye and facial cues of others.
"These are subtle aspects that are acquired late and slowly over years," he said. "One question I have is how children understand the impact of these interruptions to look at a phone? How do they understand what it means for the conversation?"
MIT professor Sherry Turkle, author of "Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other," sees real danger. When she has observed families at home she sees that same kind of device distraction of parents as Radesky's team found.
"I have quotes from college students depicting childhoods when they could not get parents' attention during meals," she told NBC News. "What's troubling is that parents do not respond appropriately to children" seeking attention "and their own distraction from the children. That's the real story in this paper, the vicious little secret that starts the pathology we should worry about."
One thing that is clear, said Dr. Gail Saltz, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital, is that eating meals with parents has been linked to a variety of benefits. Children who have regular sit-down meals with family are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol or get pregnant as teenagers. They earn better grades. These benefits don't accrue just because parents and children are munching carrots at the same time; they happen because the family is communicating.
Children who constantly see their parents playing with smartphones at the dinner table can feel neglected, insecure or not worth your time, Saltz said. "You're going to miss a lot of those benefits of eating meals together."
While the science of device distraction may be just getting underway, Saltz is already convinced. "Staring at your phone during a meal with your child is not a good thing."