Family meals at the dinner table are important for bonding connections, but they can be easily ruined by a mother’s cellphone use. A collaborative effort from researchers found mothers can do some damage to the relationship with their kids if they don’t put down their cellphone at the dinner table. They published their study in the journal Academic Pediatrics.

"This study documents what we clearly see to be true — that is, that everyone is connected to an electronic interface way too much and ignoring real-time human relations," said the study’s co-author Dr. Ron Marino, associate chair of pediatrics at Winthrop-University, according to HealthDay. "Children must have the emotional, physical, and verbal presence of a loving caretaker. When a mother is distracted by electronic media, the opportunities to develop language and social cognition are diminished or lost."

Researchers observed what happened when 225 mother-and-child pairs experienced cellphone use on the moms' part. When moms pulled out their cell phones, their gazes and attention were directed at the device, making them less involved with their kids. A lot of harm can be done to the kids this way, as the conversations that take place during dinner are more integral to a child's relationship with his mother than most realize.

The research team found that when mothers used their cellphones at the dinner table, they had 20 percent fewer verbal and 39 percent fewer nonverbal interactions with their kids. Nonverbal interactions included head nods, smiles, eye contact, and hand gestures that indicate active listening. “Just as we would not want parents intermittently reading a newspaper or glimpsing a TV program during family meals, parents should make a conscious effort to put away their mobile devices during mealtime," said the study’s co-author Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York, according to HealthDay. "Most text messages and emails can wait the 20 minutes or so that families spend together at the dinner table."

The children were 6 years old and living with a low-income family, making them highly impressionable to their mother’s behavior. During the experiment, they were fed unfamiliar foods because it creates a stress environment that increases the mother’s responsibility. The mothers' role became vital to calming the children down to reassure them the foods were safe or that they would like them. Cellphone use at the table goes beyond simple food reassurance — mothers can miss out on irreplaceable opportunities to connect and get to know their children.

"Although this study looked at low-income families in an experimental setting, there is no reason to think that these findings don't reflect what goes [on] in households across America during family meals at dinnertime," Adesman said. "Common sense suggests that parents should make a concerted effort to be 'device-free' during family dinners. This will likely not only have immediate benefits on the family unit, but it will also set a positive example for children since it will just be a matter of time before these kids as teens likewise have mobile devices with their potential to distract."

Source: Radesky J, Miller A, Rosenblum K, Appugliese D, Kaciroti N, Lumeng J. Maternal Mobile Device Use During a Structured Parent–Child Interaction Task. Academic Pediatrics. 2014.