Parents’ smartphone use may harm child development

TAU researchers find that mothers speak up to four times less with toddlers when distracted; consequences can be "far-reaching"

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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.

In a survey, the researchers found that mother-child interactions occurred two-to-four times less frequently when mothers were either browsing a smartphone or reading a printed magazine compared to periods of uninterrupted free play. To encourage natural behavior, the mothers were unaware of the purpose of the experiment when browsing the smartphone and magazines around their toddlers.

“The mothers spoke up to four times less with their children while they were on their smartphones,” said lead investigator Dr. Katy Borodkin of the Department of Communication Disorders at TAU’s Stanley Steyer School of Health Professions, Sackler Faculty of Medicine. “The consequences of inadequate mother-child interaction can be far-reaching.”

Dr. Borodkin added that the interactions between mothers and children in the study were both less frequent and poorer in quality when smartphones were involved. “They exchanged fewer conversational turns with the toddler, provided less immediate and content-tailored responses, and more often ignored explicit child bids,” she said. “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 noted that they did not find that one medium distracted the mothers more than the other between smartphones and magazines, Dr. Borodkin noted that “It is clear that we use smartphones much more than any other media, so they pose a significant developmental threat.”

Dr. Borodkin added that the researchers believe the findings characterize communication interferences between fathers and their toddlers as well, “since smartphone usage patterns are similar between men and women.” The study’s findings were published in the journal Child Development.

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 designated Facebook page from a smartphone 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).

Dr. Borodkin explained that the team videotaped all the interactions between the mothers and the toddlers and later scanned the recordings frame by frame in an attempt to quantify the mother-child interactions.

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 to which the mother responded to children’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 developmental 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,” said Dr. Borodkin.

Dr. Borodkin discusses the study:

“It is clear that we use smartphones much more than any other media, so they pose a significant developmental threat."