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Child and Parent Interactions with Mobile Devices

Q&A with Jenny Radesky, MD


Jenny Radesky, MD, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at BMC, has done multiple studies looking at how mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets, impact the interaction between kids and caregivers. Below, she discusses what she has found through her research, how she advises parents about balancing mobile device use around children, and what's appropriate for children in terms of mobile device use at a young age.

Q. Can kids react poorly if their parents or caregivers are preoccupied with their mobile devices during mealtimes?

A. The children we observed in our early studies of this phenomenon seemed to have two chief reactions: either NO reaction, meaning they went about what they were doing without trying to interact with the caregiver; or escalating reactions with silly, limit-testing, or noncompliant behavior, as if they were trying harder and harder to get their caregivers' attention, even if it was negative attention. We can only hypothesize about what drives children to react this way, but other researchers have suggested that looking down at a mobile device is a nonverbal signal to others that we want to withdraw from interaction, and we think kids are picking up these signals.

Q. What tips do you have for parents or caregivers about using their mobile devices around their kids?

A. I recommend that parents try to keep meals and bedtime screen-free, so that we can connect with our kids during these important daily routines. I also think it's important for parents to understand their own cognitive and emotional reactions to their mobile devices, and try to limit the activities that stress them out the most or are most "absorbing" when they're with their kids.

For example, I know that work email is something that I really want to concentrate on, and I find it impossible to toggle between my work brain and child brain, so I really try not to check it during times when my children expect me to be engaged with them. For other people, it may be games, news, or social media that really "suck them in" or make them feel overwhelmed with the amount of media/information they are receiving on a daily basis, and I think it's a good idea to reflect on what tech activities do this to us, and try not to engage in them during family routines.

"In many of the families I talk to, parents let children do a lot of the downloading, and then they're surprised to find inappropriate video games on their child's 'educational' device."

Q. Can kids use mobile devices?

A. It really depends on the age and developmental characteristics of the child, as well as the context of device use. We know that content matters (go for educational, slow-paced, age-appropriate content), amount matters (the more time a child is using a screen, the less time they are engaging in other activities that flex all the other areas of their brain), and co-viewing matters (children always learn more from media when an adult watches with them and reinforces the content through talking, playing, relating to other areas of the child's life).

Q. Should there be time limits?

A. Despite the fact that media is now pervasive and it's hard to keep track of how much time we spend with screens, I still think a two-hour time limit for entertainment media use is wise, so that media use doesn't displace all of the other activities we know are important to child development.

Q. What should parents watch out for when downloading applications for their kids?

A. First, parents should be aware of what apps their children are downloading. In many of the families I talk to, parents let children do a lot of the downloading, and then they're surprised to find inappropriate video games on their child's "educational" device. When it's the parents doing the downloading or monitoring of their child's app downloads, they should look for apps appropriate to the child's age, developmental abilities, and knowledge. There are some media curation websites such as which provide reviews of popular apps, and these can be helpful guides.

Parents might also consider playing the app themselves to see what their child will learn and how basic or complicated the educational content is (but it's important to note: right now app quality is pretty poor in terms of educational content, there is very little evidence that children under 5 can learn much from apps, and most apps out there don't have a real curriculum or any input from developmental scientists). For the youngest kids, it is crucial that parents play the app with the child, so that they can reinforce what was presented in the app in real-life ways.