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By Maureen Kochan:

Turns out parents need to set screen-time limits – for themselves.

If you have kids and digital devices in your family, chances are you’ve fretted about the right amount of screen time for your kids. But a Boston Medical Center study suggests that you should also tally your screen time, because increased screen use by parents in front of kids may hurt kids.

Dr. Jenny Radesky, a pediatrician specializing in child development and lead author of the study, stumbled upon the issue after she had kids of her own and noticed that it was parents in restaurants, not kids, who were consistently distracted by digital devices.

This troubled Radesky because she knows that meals provide invaluable face-to-face time for kids and parents. “From the moment they’re born, children’s brains are wired to look to their caregivers to learn about the world, learn language [and] learn about their own experiences and emotions,” Radesky says.

Radesky’s preliminary research into what some call the new sibling rivalry turned up studies about using digital devices while driving and walking but nothing about the ways in which devices were being used by parents around kids. So she and two fellow researchers spent one summer observing 55 parents and kids dining at 15 fast food restaurants in the Boston area. And while the study is more anthropological than scientific – think Jane Goodall’s field study of chimpanzee family and social life – Radesky’s work turned up some fascinating findings that she hopes will fuel further research.

For starters, 40 of the 55 parents Radesky and her team observed used a device at some point during their meal. And while that use included “mild absorption” – quickly checking a phone, sending a text and returning to conversation, for example – almost half of the adults (16) used a device continuously throughout the meal.

Not surprisingly, the more absorbed an adult became with a device, the more the kids acted out, most likely in an attempt to win the parent’s attention. One little girl even went so far as to stab her plate and hit her brother in a bid to get her mom to look up from her phone. (She didn’t.)

Radesky also found that the more absorbed an adult became, the more harshly he or she reacted to being interrupted. One female adult pushed a young boy’s hands away when he tried repeatedly to lift her face up from looking at a tablet, and another adult female kicked a child under the table.

And while parents have long had to switch attention from tasks to kids and from kids to tasks, Radesky would like to research whether there’s something about digital devices that is particularly absorbing to parents.

In the meantime, Radesky hopes her study will get parents thinking about their use of tablets and phones.

“It’s important for parents to create some time for distraction-free family connection,” she says. “I certainly enjoy my kids much more when I’m not trying to multitask.”

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