Young Children’s Mobile Device Use in Public Places: Immersion, Distraction, and Co-Use

Diana Floegel, Nelly Elias, Dafna Lemish


Though prior research has examined how parents use mobile devices in public, we know less about children’s use of mobile devices outside the home. The present study therefore explores how children use mobile devices in public places they visit with their parents in order to conceptualize how device use affects children’s interactions with their parents and environments. We used naturalistic non-participant observational methods in three locations in the US: eateries, laundromats, and airports. We observed 77 families with at least one parent and one child estimated to be between 2-6 years old. The observers wrote detailed field notes that we analyzed qualitatively using thematic analysis. We found that children used mobile devices in 31% of the observed families. We categorized children’s behaviors under three themes: immersion, distraction, and co-use. Children were highly engaged with their parents and environment during co-use. However, when children asked for a device or were provided with a device that they used on their own, they were less engaged with parents and environments. Engagement levels between children and parents therefore corresponded with the circumstances of children’s device use and whether they used devices with their parents or in isolation from them. The themes we develop here may be applied to future qualitative and quantitative studies of children’s mobile device use in public and at home.

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Studies in Media and Communication      ISSN 2325-8071 (Print)   ISSN 2325-808X (Online)

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