Australian parents are depriving their children of vital interaction and life-development opportunities by failing to recognise how much time they spend glued to their mobile devices in public places, research by Monash University shows.
In a study that puts parents under the microscope, Master of Educational and Developmental Psychology and PhD candidate, Carrie Ewin, says children are in real danger of losing their primary caregivers to mobile devices which can have long-term consequences for parent-child interactions.
Carrie conducted an observational study of 70 parents using mobile phones and electronic tablets in the company of their children at food courts and play areas in Melbourne shopping centres. This involved detailed notes being taken by an observer sitting close to the parents and their children.
Parents were closely watched to identify how they used their devices while caring for their children. The way that children reacted when their parents used a mobile phone and how this affected their interactions was also noted.
This included the tapping, swiping and speaking habits of parents plus their children's behaviour, body language and conversation.
"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," Carrie 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 of the study show that of the 70 child-caregiver groups observed, nearly 82% included a caregiver that used a mobile device for more than 10 minutes. One caregiver was observed spending nearly two hours absorbed in their mobile device.
Some parents also missed signs of danger, such as their children falling or wandering off, and many parents offered very little conversation or engagement.
"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. Another caregiver didn't see their baby standing up and falling out of a pram," Carrie said.
"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."
A surprising observation was that a vast majority of children recognised their parents were 'busy', yet chose to not play with or use a mobile device during the observed period. Instead, they opted to play with their siblings or occupied themselves in another way.
However, some children attracted attention through provocative behaviours – including climbing over furniture, raising voices, calling out and aggravating siblings.
Despite being well-intentioned, the majority of parents' responses were flippant or ignored their child's needs. Some parents remained silent for some time while their children were behaving poorly.
"There has been a lot of commentary about parents losing connection to their children as mobile devices take hold of their lives. 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," Carrie said.
"This research calls on parents to balance their device use and actively engage with their children during everyday moments like eating and playing.
"High levels of parental absorption with mobile devices may significantly impact parental responsivity, non-verbal gestures and shared language. Parent-child language is essential for the formation of children's early language skills and also has many other developmental benefits such as bonding and learning to regulate emotions."
Dr Andrea Reupert and Dr Louise McLean from Monash University's Faculty of Education are supervising Carrie's PhD project.
Dr Reupert said Carrie's research was significant as it examined how parents might interact positively and meaningfully with their children in today's digital world.
"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.
Carrie is due to complete her study in 2020.