It’s an everyday scenario: a distracted parent is staring at their phone, while their child is either trying to get the parent’s attention or is doing something else. Maybe something dangerous. Or maybe just annoying.
But what if that device-based distraction was actually bad for the child? There’s now evidence that this lack of interaction leads to escalating bad behavior and maybe even delays in language and recognition skills. All because of that frantic last work email of the day, or one more game of Candy Crush.
Ignoring Kids Isn’t New. The Method Is.
Ask any person over the age of 70 about how they raised their kids, and they’ll tell tales of sticking babies and toddlers in playpens for hours, just to get stuff done around the house. Back in the days before helicopter parenting, kids were tossed out the door on summer mornings and told to be home for dinner; supervision was minimal.
Ignoring kids, it seems, has always been a part of raising them. Usually, though, the kids were either corralled (playpen) or understood they were indeed on their own (outside in their neighborhood). Compare that to the present day, when parents might physically be with the kids, but psychically far, far away on the phone. The proximity gives the illusion of safety; the distraction creates the possibility of chaos.
CBS Austin recently interviewed Detective Patrick Oborski with the Austin Police Department who has seen this firsthand. The distraction of the phone, from social media to playing games, leads to more accidents at parks, pools, and on the road.
“Whether it be texting or talking on the phone, we definitely see a distraction with parents,” Oborski told CBS.
There’s actually a link between smartphone usage and children’s injuries. The Atlantic reported that AT&T rolled out its smartphone service at different rates in different locations, creating what it termed “an intriguing natural experiment.”
“…Area by area, as smartphone adoption rose, childhood ER visits increased,” The Atlantic reported. “These findings attracted a decent bit of media attention to the physical dangers posed by distracted parenting, but we have been slower to reckon with its impact on children’s cognitive development.”
Studies Indicate Parents and Phone Use Can Delay Cognitive Development
It seems no one can get through even an hour without tending to their device. In families, that device “check-in” time can have tangible and negative results.
A study cited by The Telegraph labeled this tech checking “technoference.”
‘”The study involved almost 200 families, and found that 40% of mothers and 32% of fathers were unable to resist checking messages, thinking about incoming communications and worrying they were using their phones too much. Thus, everyday interactions were often interrupted by devices, leading to truncated face-to-face conversations, meals, or playtimes. The study found almost half the families had this “technoference” happening at least three times per day; only 11% claimed no interruptions (probably wishful thinking),” The Telegraph reported.
The result of the “technoference?” Poor behavior on the part of the kids.
Two other studies at the University of Michigan’s medical school had similar findings. One study, in 2015, featured 225 low-income mother/child pairs, videotaped eating dinner. The study matched frequency of phone use by the mothers with the maternal verbal and non-verbal prompts for encouraging their kids to eat unfamiliar foods. The result?
“Mobile device use was common and associated with fewer interactions with children during a structured interaction task, particularly nonverbal interactions and during introduction of an unfamiliar food,” the study stated.
In other words, the parents busy with the devices weren’t nearly as attentive on every level, meaning the kids ate less healthfully.
The other study, in 2014, was similar in design: 55 caregivers eating with their charges in fast food restaurants. This time, though, they were observed without their knowledge. Forty-four of the caregivers used phones, causing the kids’ behavior to escalate, often in a negative way. The more absorbed the caregivers were in their devices, the harsher the treatment of the kids.
“Time and again we saw less conversation during parents’ tech use. They took longer to respond to their children and there was more conflict with the parents raising their voice, shoving children away and the children trying to escalate their behavior,” study author Dr. Jenny Radetsky told The Atlantic.
Too Much Phone Use Can Even Impact Babies
It’s not just older kids who feel ignored vis a vie their parents’ cell phone addiction. Infants can be negatively impacted, as well.
While it seems like infants are mostly in a world of their own (eating, sleeping, and other very basic things), they also depend mightily on the gaze and the intimacy of eye contact. One 2017 article, entitled “Digital disruption? Maternal mobile device use is related to infant social-emotional functioning,” explored this by using what’s called the Still Face Paradigm (SFP). SFP has three stages: free play (FP), still face (SF) and reunion (RU).
“When parents use mobile devices in front of infants, the parent is physically present but most likely distracted and unresponsive. Research using the classic Still Face Paradigm (SFP) suggests that parental withdrawal and unresponsiveness may have negative consequences for children’s social-emotional development,” the study commented.
The article went on to further stress its concerns.
“ Infant behavior during the SF phase is characterized by decreased positive affect and gaze, and increased negative affect. Maternal regulation of infant emotion is absent during this phase, and when bids for emotional reciprocation are not returned, the infant tends to respond with distress and confusion…”
In other words, once the parent has withdrawn onto their phone, the baby bids for attention but gets none, which then negatively affects the eventual reunion (RU) that occurs once the phone is finally put down.
“More frequent reported mobile device use was associated with less room exploration and positive affect during SF, and less recovery (i.e., engagement with mother, room exploration positive effect) during RU, even when controlling for individual differences in temperament, “ the article concluded.
Some Efforts Are Worth Making
Simply put: put down that phone when using it isn’t absolutely necessary. Make a phone schedule that gives breaks during meals, during a specific playtime or at the park. It’s not about feeling guilty, or not getting work done, but about managing the time in a more controlled way.
“Demonstrate your own mindfulness in front of your children by putting down your phone during meals or whenever they need your attention,” David Hill of the American Academy of Pediatrics told Motherly. He also suggests involving older children in making family decisions about the use of media both in and outside the home.
In the end, the habits and behaviors parents display have an enormous impact on the kids. Practice control and restraint when it comes to the phone, and the kids will model those behaviors, or at least won’t accuse you of hypocrisy when you tell them to put down that phone during dinner.