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Are you spending too much time on your phone at the playground? Photo: Shutterstock
Are you spending too much time on your phone at the playground? Photo: Shutterstock

Have you ever felt guilty for glancing at your phone to tweet, text or email something while your child hangs from the monkey bars?

You aren’t alone.

According to a new study conducted by the University of Washington, 44 percent of parents and other caregivers believe phones shouldn’t be used religiously at the playground, even if they can’t resist the temptation to use one themselves.

Photo Credit: Bob B. Brown via Flickr.
Photo Credit: Bob B. Brown via Flickr.

While playground phone calls may sound like child’s play compared to other sins, like texting while driving, the usage of electronic devices in front of children is an emotionally charged subject.

Perhaps, you’ll recall the work of Jenny Radesky, a former Seattle pediatrician, who moved to Boston where she studied the effects of parents’ screentime on children. She spent a summer observing parents and young children at fast food restaurants, where many caregivers pulled out a mobile device right away and typed for most of the meal.

This UW study had a similar mission: Find out how much parents were distracted by their phones.

To gather this information, UW researchers watched parents and other caregivers at seven North Seattle playgrounds, where observers collected 33 hours of data. They timed caregiver’s phone usage to find out the frequency and duration of phone usage, and some participants were also interviewed.

The big takeaway from the study: Even though almost half of caregivers worry about what excessive phone usage does to children, the vast majority of people aren’t reaching for their smartphones. The study found nearly two-thirds of the participants spent less than 5 percent of their time at the park using a phone, including 41 percent who did not use a phone at all.

When adults did use a phone it was often for a short period of time. Nearly 30 percent of all uses were less than 10 seconds long and more than half were less than one minute.

textingplayground“Phones do distract us and that’s something to be aware of, but I think it’s not nearly as bad as some people have made things out to be,” said co-author Julie Kientz, associate professor of human centered design and engineering and director of the UW Computing for Healthy Living and Learning Lab, in a statement. “Plenty of people are being really attentive parents and thinking deeply about these issues.”

Interviewees reported using their phones for a variety of purposes, like texting (48%), calling (48%), followed by email (38%), picture-taking (38%), and Facebook (20%). A small minority of people mentioned other online activities, checking the time, and playing games.

Often times, caregivers reported using their phones for childcare-related activities, which they generally felt less guilty about. Such activities included taking pictures to share with spouses or grandparents (88%), arranging to meet people later in the day (79%) or checking the time (75%).

The study did warn, however, that when a phone was being used, a child had a hard time getting the adult’s attention.

In 32 instances, researchers observed a child attempting to gain the attention of an adult using a phone. In 18 cases, or 56% of the time, the adult did not respond to the child at all. In comparison, there were 70 instances in which a child attempted to interrupt or gain the attention of an adult who was not using a phone, and in these cases – a child usually got a prompt reply.

The study’s authors are Alexis Hiniker, Kiley Sobel, Hyewon Suh, Yi-Chen Sung, Charlotte P. Lee and Julie A. Kientz of the UW’s human centered design and engineering department.

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