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Israeli study: Mothers’ smartphone use could damage toddler development

Tel Aviv University research finds key interactions with child are reduced to a quarter when mom is distracted by phone or reading magazines; same likely true of fathers

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Stressed mother holding smartphone (iStock)
Stressed mother holding smartphone (iStock)

Parents distracted by their smartphones could be causing long-term developmental damage to their toddlers because they aren’t interacting with them enough, according to a recently published study by researchers at Tel Aviv University.

The research found that interaction between mothers and toddlers is reduced by up to a factor of four when the mother is using her smartphone, the university said in a statement about the research.

“The consequences of inadequate mother-child interaction can be far-reaching,” cautioned Katy Borodkin of the Department of Communication Disorders at the Stanley Steyer School of Health Professions, Sackler Faculty of Medicine, and who led the study.

There is a “high probability” that the research findings apply to fathers as well, Borodkin said, as men and women have similar patterns of use for their smartphones.

Borodkin noted there is currently no research suggesting that parental use of smartphones actually affects child development, “as this is a relatively new phenomenon,” but the findings indicate an “adverse impact on the foundation of child development.”

Researchers studied dozens of mothers as they interacted with their toddlers aged 2 to 3. The mothers were told the experiment was to examine the link between the interests of a mother and a child, making them unaware of the real purpose, which was to examine their interactions, Borodkin explained.

Mothers were told to browse a designated Facebook page and like videos and articles they found interesting while their children were at play. In other sessions, they were told to read a printed magazine while marking articles of interest, also while playing with their toddlers, and finally to play with their child when the smartphone and magazine were not in the room.

Borodkin said the experiment was designed to simulate real-life situations when a mother divides her attention between her child and her smartphone. Her subjects behaved naturally, “splitting their interest between the toddlers and the smartphone and magazines.”

The sessions were videotaped and then carefully examined frame by frame to quantify the mother-child interactions.

Tel Aviv researchers specified three elements in mother-child interactions and studied how participants in the experiments performed in each one.

Maternal linguistic input, the linguistic content that a mother transmits to her child, has been shown in previous research to be an important predictor of language development, with reduced input leading to reduced vocabulary in a child that can extend into adulthood, the statement said.

Another component, conversational turns, is a gauge of how interactive the discourse is between the mother and child. It is during such responsive interaction that a child learns that they have something to contribute to interaction as well as gaining an understanding of social norms and interactions. As such, it is a predictor of language and social development

Finally, researchers looked at maternal responsiveness, measuring the immediacy of responses and how they related to the content of the child’s demands, comparing simple affirmations to more detailed responses that showed the mother was thinking about what the child had said. Such responsiveness forms the basis “for almost every aspect of child development: linguistic, social, emotional, and cognitive,” the statement said.

Results showed that all three elements were reduced by a factor of two to four relative to uninterrupted free play, when the magazines and smartphone were out of the room.

“In other words, the mothers talked up to four times less with their children while they were on their smartphone,” Borodkin said. “Moreover, they exchanged fewer conversational turns with the toddler, 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,” she added.

There was no difference whether the mothers were reading a magazine or browsing a smartphone, but because the latter is generally more immediately available it poses a greater danger, Borodkin noted.

“We did not find that one media distracted more than the other,” she said. “However, it is clear that we use smartphones much more than any other media, so they pose a significant developmental threat.”

The research was published in the November/December issue of the top-tier Journal of Child Development.

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