Could parents' smartphone use disrupt child development? - study

TAU researchers observed 33 Israeli mothers and their 16 toddlers, all boys aged 24-36 months. Here is what they found.

A migrant woman from Syria checks her mobile device as she eats with her daughter at a recetion centre after their arrival at the main railway station in Dortmund, Germany, September 13, 2015. (photo credit: REUTERS/INA FASSBENDER)
A migrant woman from Syria checks her mobile device as she eats with her daughter at a recetion centre after their arrival at the main railway station in Dortmund, Germany, September 13, 2015.
(photo credit: REUTERS/INA FASSBENDER)

Could parents' use of smartphones disrupt their childrens' development? According to a Tel Aviv University (TAU) study published in the peer-reviewed journal Child Development last month, this may be the case.

The researchers, 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, observed 33 Israeli mothers and their 16 toddlers, all boys aged 24-36 months.

The researchers invited participants saying they would examine "the link between the mother's and the child's interests." They asked each mother to browse a specific Facebook page and 'like' content that interests them, read printed magazines and mark interesting articles and play with their child while the phone and magazine were in another room.

"Our 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," Borodkin said.

"The mothers were unaware of the purpose of the experiment, so they behaved naturally by splitting their interest between the toddlers and the smartphone and magazines. We 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 interaction."

The TAU team defined three aspects of the interaction between a mother and her child: Maternal linguistic input - the "linguistic content that the mother conveys to the child"; conversational turns - the level of interactivity of a mother-child verbal exchange; and maternal responsiveness - the timeliness and specificity of a mother's response to a particular "bid" from her child.

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 (credit: COURTESY/TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY)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 (credit: COURTESY/TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY)

According to TAU, decreased maternal linguistic input leads to reduced vocabulary in a child, even when they reach adulthood.

Similarly, conversational turns - how interactive a particular conversation was - affect a child's linguistic 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 is critical for child development, including linguistic, cognitive, emotional and social development; "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'", said the researchers. 

The researchers found that all three components of mother-child interaction were two to four times lower when the mother was using her smartphone or reading a magazine; "Moreover, they exchanged fewer conversational turns with the toddler, provided less immediate and content-tailored responses, and more often ignored explicit child bids," TAU stated.

The team also found that using a smartphone and reading was equally distracting, but TAU noted that there is currently no evidence that smartphone use actually impacts child development because smartphones are a relatively recent phenomenon, although the findings suggest "an adverse impact on the foundation of child development".

Borodkin added that the research may also be relevant to father-child interaction because the use of smartphones by both women and men is comparable.

"In our current research we focused on the mothers, but we believe that our findings characterize communication interferences between fathers and their toddlers as well, since the smartphone usage patterns are similar between men and women, thus allowing us to estimate with high probability that the research findings are applicable to fathers and to mothers”, Borodkin said.