KIDS
May 27, 2015

Cell Phones, Boredom and Playgrounds

When parents and caregivers get on their phones to relieve boredom at the playground, they pay less attention to their kids.

Life at the playground has changed now that parents and caregivers bring their cell phones with them. And many are feeling guilty about it, according to a new study.

While other studies have looked at cell phone use on playgrounds from a distance, this one went further. Researchers recorded over 40 hours of adults' behavior at playgrounds in Seattle. They also interviewed parents, nannies and other adults about their cell phone use.

Phone use did have its consequences. It was much more distracting than the users realized.

Feelings fell into three main camps. Most of the adults watching kids (44%) felt that they should restrict phone use on the playground, and felt guilty for not doing so; 28% felt that most “adult-focused” cellphone use was perfectly appropriate; and 24% felt it was important to eliminate or at least minimize cell phone use while watching children and lived up to that ideal.

Overall, cell phone use was fairly low. About two-thirds of the caregivers were observed using their cell phones less than 5% of their time and many uses were for 10 seconds or less. But phone use did have its consequences. It was much more distracting than the users realized.

When children tried to interrupt an adult using a cell phone — asking the adult to look at them or settle a dispute or for some other reason, more than half of the time (56%), the adult failed to respond, speak or even look away from the phone. When these adults were not on the phone, but chatting with a friend, helping another child or simply staring into space, a child's request was only ignored 11% of the time.

Adults tended to overestimate how responsive they were to children's requests for attention while using their phone.

So maybe cell phone users do have something to feel guilty about. It certainly seems to be taking their attention away from the children. Even worse, adults tended to overestimate how responsive they were to children's requests for attention while using their phone. They realized that being on the phone was distracting, but many mistakenly thought that a child's request for attention would filter through and bring their mind back to playground.

Boredom was the single greatest factor prompting people to reach for their phones.

Phone app designers could help ease all this guilt by making it harder for people to access or stay on their phones. Tools like a parenting mode with limited functionality or scrolling options that end after five or ten items or even a simple password screen can force users to spend more time in the outside world.

Imagine a feature like the V-chip on a TV, with children deciding which phone functions to block and which to allow their parents to access. Hopefully, parents are monitoring children's screen time, so turnabout is fair play.

The study was presented at the Association for Computing Machinery's Computer Human Interface (CHI) 2015 conference.

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