Are Cell-Phone-Distracted Parents Really Endangering Kids at the Playground?

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Young mother resting in the shade of the trees on a park bench, texting.Location Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia. --- Image by ? Michael Pole/Corbis
Photo: Michael Pole/Corbis

These days, lots of people are wondering whether a certain type of over-scheduling, over-supervising type of parenting might be doing more harm than good — Jennifer Senior recently recently decried the “age of irrational parenting,” and there have been regrettable high-profile incidents of parents having the cops called on them for letting their kids take short walks or play on playgrounds alone. On the other side, of course, are parents who insist all they’re trying to do is keep their kids safe. New research about parents being distracted by their cell phones is only going to throw more fuel on the fire.

Full papers of the studies, which are being presented at the ongoing annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies by Ruth Milanaik of the Cohen Children’s Medical Center (or may have been already — the program guide is a bit of a labyrinth), aren’t available, but the study’s press release runs down the findings. Basically, Milanaik and her researchers observed parent-child pairs at a bunch of playgrounds in New York to gauge the parents’ level of distraction and whether distracted parents led to riskier behavior in kids.

Here’s what they found:

The researchers randomly selected caregivers with only one child who appeared to be between the ages of 18 months and 5 years. One researcher observed the caregiver for 10-20 minutes and recorded four behaviors every two minutes: visual supervision, auditory supervision, engagement with the child and distraction. The other researcher observed how often the child took risks.

The researchers observed 50 caregiver/child pairs and recorded 371 two-minute episodes. Caregivers were distracted during 74 percent of these episodes. Most of the distractions, however, were considered mild, with the majority of the adult’s attention focused on the child.

Surprisingly, cell phones were not the biggest distraction. Talking with other adults accounted for 33 percent of all distractions, while electronic devices such as cell phones were responsible for 30 percent. The remaining 37 percent of distractions included eating, drinking, looking in a book bag/purse, reading and other activities. 

Meanwhile, 30 percent of the children engaged in risk-taking behaviors, including walking up the slide, throwing sand, sliding head first, pushing other children and jumping off moving swings. Children whose caregivers were distracted were significantly more likely to engage in risky behaviors. Researchers observed five falls, three of which occurred while a caregiver was distracted. None of the children was seriously injured.

It’s unclear what we should take from all this. Obviously, very young kids should generally be supervised while they’re running around. But it’s also unrealistic to expect parents on a playground — all of whom, of course, know that they need to supervise their kids, and who spend good chunks of their life doing just that — not to talk to other parents or check their cell phones. The press release’s headline, of course, is “Cell phones take parents’ attention away from kids on playgrounds” — even though the research itself found that cell phones weren’t the biggest distraction. Plus, it’s fairly safe to say that if the cell-phone-using parents didn’t have cell phones, many of them would find some other way to distract themselves. Being a parent is hard! That’s why a trip to the playground can be an important source of stress relief for both kids and moms and dad alike.

None of this is to bash research into how kids get hurt and how to make things safer for them, and the press release does cite a study that suggests kids 14 and under are taken to the ER 200,000 times a year for injuries sustained on playgrounds. But some perspective is important — there are almost 75 million kids 17 or younger in the U.S., suggesting this is not, statistically speaking, a major menace to kids’ well-being. At a certain point, it’s important to balance actual risk with the potential damage that can be done from heaping endless quantities of guilt onto stressed-out parents.