It feels as though this blog has been dedicated more often than not in recent weeks to critiquing studies and finding them wanting, or to complaints about misuse or misinterpretation of research. Today, I want to toast a simple, clever, revealing ethnographic study that does precisely what good research should: It furthers knowledge while also sparking ideas for further study.
The research in question is far from an unalloyed endorsement of media for families; in fact, it’s a cautionary tale about parents’ absorption with mobile media.
The title pretty much says it all: “Patterns of Mobile Device Use by Caregivers and Children During Meals in Fast Food Restaurants.” The methodology couldn’t have been simpler: we observed 55 caregivers eating with 1 or more young children in fast food restaurants in a single metropolitan area. Observers wrote detailed field notes, continuously describing all aspects of mobile device use and child and caregiver behavior during the meal. Field notes were then subjected to qualitative analysis using grounded theory methods to identify common themes of device use.
The lead author – Jenny Radesky – and her team are pediatricians at the Boston Medical Center/Boston University Medical Center. Happily, this study too has gained some public traction, with stories on NPR the New York Times and USA Today.
Here’s what I especially liked: The study grew from a real-world observation of families, and asked a question that is at once simple and elemental to understanding the new mobile family ecosystem. The authors presented their findings in clear language, with vivid practical examples. They also acknowledged that this is just a starting point, too small and preliminary to draw big conclusions, but highly suggestive for further study.
Forty of the 55 caregivers used some form of mobile media during the meal. They varied in how absorbed they became with the device, and also in how they responded when the children in their care sought attention.
A few months ago, I wrote about a conference that addressed the need to develop mobile-native research models, to break away from asking the same questions that have driven children-and-TV studies. I noted in particular that we know well the effect of background television on children – it distracts kids from their play, and parents from interacting with children – but we hadn’t yet posited what the digital, mobile equivalent would be. I believe Radesky et. al. hint that the answer may lie within the behaviors they tracked: we did ﬁnd it striking that during caregiver absorption with devices, some children appeared to accept the lack of engagement and entertained themselves, whereas others showed increasing bids for attention that were often answered with negative parent responses.
So, to recap, we have a tight study timely in its perspective, conducted in natural circumstances, direct observation of behavior and its immediate effects, aware of its limitations and clever about the foundation it’s laid.
This was a study of parents’ media habits, not children’s, but ethnographic studies can illuminate many facets of kids’ and families’ lives – media, toys, games and experiences across play and learning. Such research is especially valuable in conjunction with other forms, such as post-observation interviews (for example, to ascertain whether the behaviors noted were conscious or now, or to put them in deeper context). Innovative methods can be engaged, as well: in a family viewing study that PlayScience conducted for The Hub, traditional diaries and ethnographic interviews were supplemented with a camera atop the family TV, taking pictures at regular intervals to document family co-viewing and multi-screen parallel media use.
Seeking practical take-aways from Radesky et. al., could children’s and family content creators make such compelling co-play options that parents would choose to share their attention? Are there location-based app possibilities that would turn mobile devices into all-family tools for play, discovery and documentation?
As for me, I’m inspired to create an app that shuts down the phone or tablet whenever its voice-activated monitor detects the words “Mom” or “Dad!”
Word of the Post: Non-Participant Observation – A type of study where the researcher observes the subject(s) without the subject’s direct engagement. This is done in order to get as natural and uninfluenced a view of a behavior as possible, though there is such a thing as “overt non-participant observation,” where subjects are aware that they are being monitored.