Kim Hone-McMahan

It’s usually teenagers who are in trouble for using their cellphones while driving, sending provocative photos, or texting exam answers to a buddy. But, this time, it’s parents who are getting dirty looks.

A recent study by the Boston Medical Center observed 55 caregivers at more than a dozen fast-food restaurants, and found that 40 of them used their phones. About a third never bothered to put their phones down when dining with the kids.

The study found that while some of the children whose parents were transfixed by their mobile devices seemed unaffected by the lack of attention, others acted out. One small group of boys sang “Jingle bells, Batman smells,” during a meal. While Dad was clearly perturbed, he quickly returned his attention to the phone.

So are smartphones making us bad parents?

During a recent visit to a local McDonald’s, a group of women were gathered around a table while children played on the restaurant’s indoor jungle gym.

Frequently they chatted with and waved to the kids, who were eager to show off their climbing skills. None was buried in her phone. When one cellphone rang, the owner glanced at the caller ID, but did not answer.

“These are not my children and I’m terrified of them getting hurt,” said Rebecca Emmons, who earned her nanny certification at the English Nanny & Governess School in Chagrin Falls. “I keep my eyes on them all of the time.”

“I worry too much about him getting kidnapped,” added Emmon’s friend, Ashlee Ohler, about her little boy. “He is my priority.”

Ohler admits she has used her phone when she is out with her son — but only if her husband is there to keep watch.

Dr. Geoffrey Putt, director of parenting and family support services at Akron Children’s Hospital, noted the study was really just an observation. And while he wouldn’t draw conclusions from it, the findings can spark discussion.

He and Diana Barkman, a therapist at Kessler Psychological Services in Hartville, both said children should feel that parents are happy to spend time with them, that they are far more interested in what the kids are saying and doing than what’s happening on a screen.

“If a child cannot evoke an emotional response from a parent, and when ongoing bids for attention are met with irritability, the child gets the message loud and clear: ‘You’re not important,’ ” said Barkman. “Parents do not have to constantly interact with children, but being constantly ignored falls into a category of emotional abuse.”

It can also lead to negative attention-seeking behavior that only gets worse as the child ages, she added.

The long-term impact can include acting out, low self-esteem, difficulty empathizing with others, and lack of ability to emotionally connect with others.

Parents may need to be reminded that they need to keep an eye on their children for safety reasons. And interaction is key for healthy child development — something that begins at birth.

“Young children learn about their world through face-to-face interaction, speech and touching,” Barkman said.

We live in a technological world with constant distractions from things like iPads, computers and phones, and what is on those devices can be pretty entertaining.

“I would go so far as to say we can become addicted to looking at our phones,” she added. “We need to monitor ourselves and have rules for ourselves and our families regarding when and where to put our devices away.”

There are, of course, times when caregivers need to reply to someone immediately. The study found that parents who were talking on their phones paid more attention to their children than those surfing the Internet.

“Life happens, but I think that the things that we do model certain behaviors that our children then pick up,” Putt said. “Play is a wonderful time to bolster imagination, develop coordination and social skills.”

It’s also a time, he added, for kids to get their parents’ approval when showing off all of the amazing things they can do on the monkey bars.

Putting the phone away during family time can benefit older children and adults, as well.

When 89-year-old Dan Hayes used to have family gatherings at his home in Akron, he had some rules.

“We’re going to do like the Old West — when you rode into town, you put your guns over there.”

With that, he would point to a bowl sitting on the table. One by one, the sometimes reluctant cellphone users silenced their vibrating links to the world and dropped them into the dish.

Kim Hone-McMahan can be reached at 330-996-3742 or