Parent Smartphone Use Could Harm Child Development

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Mothers devote only 25% of their attention to toddlers when distracted, consequences can be far-reaching.

A new study from Tel Aviv University found that mothers devote only 25% of their attention to their toddlers while using smartphones, a practice which may impair child development. The researchers believe the findings are applicable to fathers as well.

To conduct the study, researchers monitored dozens of mothers who were asked to perform three tasks alongside their toddlers, aged two to three: Browse a specific Facebook page and like videos and articles that interest them; read printed magazines and mark articles that interest them; and finally, play with the child while the smartphone and magazines were outside the room (uninterrupted free play).

The goal was to simulate situations in real life where the mother has to take care of her child, while at the same time devoting some of her attention to her smartphone. To encourage natural behavior, the mothers were unaware of the purpose of the experiment when browsing a smartphone or reading a printed magazine compared to periods of uninterrupted free play.

The results of the new study, which was led by Dr. Katy Borodkin of the Department of Communication Disorders at The Stanley Steyer School of Health Professions, Sackler Faculty of Medicine of Tel Aviv University, were published in the top-tier Journal of Child Development.

When Mom Reads a Really Good Post

“The mothers talked up to four times less with their children while they were on their smartphones,” said Dr. Borodkin. Not only did they exchange fewer conversational turns with the toddler, the quality of the interactions was also poorer, as the mothers provided less immediate and content-tailored responses, and more often ignored explicit child bids. “Even when they were able to respond while browsing Facebook, the quality of the response was reduced – the mothers kept their responsiveness to a bare minimum to avoid a complete breakdown in communication with the toddler.”

While the researchers did not find that one medium distracted the mothers more than the other between smartphones and magazines, Borodkin noted that: “It is clear that we use smartphones much more than any other media, so they pose a significant developmental threat.

While the study focused on the mothers, the researchers believe the findings characterize communication interferences between fathers and their toddlers as well, since the smartphone usage patterns are similar between men and women.

WATCH: Dr. Katy Borodkin explains how extensive use of smartphones by parents might damage toddlers’ development

Parents, Put Your Phones Away! 

As the mothers performed the tasks, the researchers assessed three components of mother-child interaction: They first examined maternal linguistic input, the spoken content that the mother conveys to the child, regarded as an important predictor of a child’s speech development. Previous studies revealed that reduced linguistic input leads to decreased vocabulary in children, a shortcoming that may extend to adulthood.

Next, the researchers examined how interactive the discourse was. Known as “conversational turns,” the back-and-forth discourse between parent and child is a predictor of language and social development, as the child learns that he or she has something to contribute to the interaction as well as the basic social norms of social interactions.

Finally, maternal responsiveness was examined through the extent the mother responded to their child’s speech. This was measured by the immediacy of the response and its contingency on what the child said. For example, when the child says “look, a truck”, there is no comparison between a response such as “yes, that’s great” and a response such as “correct, this is a red truck, like the one we saw yesterday”. This measure is the basis for almost every aspect of child development: linguistic, social, emotional, and cognitive.

“We currently have no evidence suggesting an actual effect on child development related to the parental use of smartphones, as this is a relatively new phenomenon. However, our findings indicate an adverse impact on the foundation of child development. The consequences of inadequate mother-child interaction can be far-reaching.”

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