A recent study published in the Pediatrics Journal describes how parents use their cell phones while in restaurants with their children. First the facts: most parents “used some kind of mobile device, either continuously or intermittently or at the end of the meal. Of the 55 groups observed in the study, only 15 had no device in play.” More surprisingly, 16 caregivers used their phones the entire time they were at the restaurant. This means there are 15 caregivers at each end of the scale, with the other 25 using cell phones intermittently.
This report from the study makes me sad: “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…Still no conversation … Now girl’s head appears to be looking right at caregiver, and caregiver looks up but not at girl…”
I don’t believe that checking a text message while you are eating with your children is going to ruin their development, but mealtimes used to be one space kids could count on spending quality time with grown-ups. The importance of this time is demonstrated by studies which show that children perform better when meal times are regular and uninterrupted.
The timing of this study delighted me because of how it connects with what I have been reading this week: The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture, by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. In this book, the author compares our excessive use of technology to infidelity: a suitable word to describe parents who are more faithful to their phones than their children:
“Daydreaming” was once the temptation of romantics who knew their imaginations could disengage from the local scene and contemplate what life might be like somewhere else. Today it threatens to become a way of life for a society whose technology so easily wags it by the tail. The great advantage of a Facebook friendship, of course, is that it is so easy. I get to choose who I want to “friend” and whose friendship requests I respond to. We gather around our common interests, share the stuff we want others to know, and log off when we feel like it. In many ways what we have is connection without obligation. But intimacy without commitment is what our society has traditionally called “infidelity.” As with adultery in marriage, the problem of infidelity isn’t so much that it breaks a rule as it is that it destroys the fabric of trust that sustains a healthy community. (In a troubled marriage, no one feels this more intensely than the kids.) If our relationships with other people do not entail responsibility and obligation, they are easily reduced to self-serving transactions in a marketplace where everyone else is always trying to sell us something—or worse, to sell us themselves. Such a commodification of life denies in practice the fundamental claim of God’s economy—that all is gift and life is a mystery of divine love.
When I preach to families about technology I always encourage them to put their phones away during mealtimes. Its an easy thing we can do to honor our kids and encourage the development of positive social skills.