Cell phones at the dinner table – a qualitative observation (Radesky et al.)

Travis DixonQualitative Research Methods, Revision and Exam Preparation, Social and Cultural Psychology, Studies and Theories

This study investigated a phenomenon named "present absence," which is when someone is physically present but their mind and attention are elsewhere. This is an increasing problem in today's technologically connected world.

Mobile phones are everywhere and they are consuming more and more of our time. Could this be having an effect on family life? The researchers who conducted this study wanted to investigate how cell phones might influence the interactions of parents and children.

 The researchers used a nonparticipant, covert observational method by watching a total of 55 caregivers eating with 1 or more young children in fast food restaurants in Boston. Observers wrote detailed field notes, continuously describing all aspects of mobile device use and child and caregiver behavior during the meal.

The sample was gathered by visiting a range of different restaurants and studying the people who were present at the time. A single researcher would buy food and sit near a family, or if no family was present they would sit at a table and wait until a family who met their inclusion criteria (one parent and at least one child) sat down to eat at the table near them. They would then take notes on what they observed. They took detailed notes on the parents and child’s behaviour, especially how they interacted when the parent was using their phone. They even including in their report things like what types of activities the parents were doing on their phones (e.g. reading emails or visiting websites).

This study was considered exempt from review by the Boston University Medical Center Institutional Review Board. Researchers received training on how to respond if questioned about their observations; however, at no time were the researchers questioned by others in the restaurant.


This study has some interesting ethical considerations, like is it OK to watch families in public without them knowing? The families in this study were never informed or debriefed about being part of a study.

The field notes were qualitatively analyzed to identify common themes and the results showed that caregivers were often completely absorbed in their mobile phone use. They found that phone use decreased the caregivers’ responsiveness and their conversation with their children and “highly absorbed caregivers often responded harshly to child misbehavior.” They also found that kids who were ignored would make increasingly demanding gestures for attention (e.g. one group of boys starting singing Jingle Bells Batman Smells in increasingly loud voices to get their Dad’s attention).

The study generated a number of questions that could be applied in future studies. For example, are some mobile phone activities more absorbing than others? Can using a mobile phone have positive effects on parent-child interactions? What are the long-term effects of exposure to “present absence” (having a parent physically present but doing other things)? The researchers also plan on using this study as the basis for a laboratory-based observation of mealtimes which they will videotape and use to create a quantitative way of measuring parent-child interactions in future studies.

You can download the full study here – it’s a fascinating read!

Radesky, J.S., Kistin, C.J., Zuckerman, B., Nitzberg, K., Gross, J., Kaplan-Sanoff, M., Augustyn, M., & Silverstein, M.E. (2014). Patterns of mobile device use by caregivers and children during meals in fast food restaurants. Pediatrics, 133 4, e843-9 .

This study makes for an excellent practice for IB Psychology students working on their Paper 3 exams. The Practice Paper 3 PDF can be downloaded here. It’s an excellent study to practice the difficult ethics question about the application of findings.