You've heard of passive smoking? Meet passive screen-time

With growing awareness of online risks, from body-shaming to problem gaming, we’ve learned to become super-vigilant about our kids’ screen-time.

But we may be less aware of how our own digital habits are affecting their health and happiness. A new study suggests the impact of parents' screen-time on children’s development may be severe.

We’ve all been there.

Life with small children can be crazy-making, relentless and - when it’s not stressing us to the max - mindnumbingly boring.

Yes, we would lay down our lives for our kids. Yes, they are inspiring, adorable and fascinating. But also yes, we sometimes - no, make that frequently - need some space from them sooo badly. 

Our phones can give us that space, metaphorically speaking. They can connect us back to the adult world, let us chat with friends, have a laugh, discover what’s happening in the wider world.

And that’s quite apart from the practical functions our smartphones allow us to perform: life admin from ordering groceries to booking health appointments and paying bills. 

So in a very real sense, spending time on your phone can be a sanity-saver when you’re on your own looking after toddlers. The problem is, it may be making your job harder in the long run, and may even result in developmental delays for your child.

Parents devote only a quarter of their attention to their children while scrolling on their phones, the study found. 

A study published last month in the Child Development Journal found extensive smartphone use by parents of young children had surprisingly large effects on the quality and quantity of interaction - especially conversation - between adults and kids, and suggested the consequences “could be far-reaching.”

Specifically, it found that parents devoted only a quarter of their attention to their children while scrolling on their phones.

The researchers asked mothers of toddlers (aged two to three years) to perform three tasks: Browse social media and like videos and articles that interested them; read printed magazines and highlight articles that interested them; and finally, play with the child while the smartphone and magazines were outside the room (uninterrupted free play).

Dramatic reductions

The interactions were then video-taped can analysed frame-by-frame in order to draw conclusions about mother-child interactions along three dimensions: linguistic input (aka mums talking to kids), conversational turns (aka kids and mums talking to each other), and maternal responsiveness (aka the way mums paid attention to kids).

Between them, these variables are the basis for almost every aspect of child development: linguistic, social, emotional, and cognitive.

And all three dimensions were dramatically reduced when mums were on their phones. 

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“The mothers talked up to four times less with their children while they were on their smartphone,” said lead researcher 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. 

“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. 

Interestingly, exactly the same effect was observed when mums read printed magazines - suggesting there is nothing uniquely detrimental about phone involvement per se. 

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

Keep up with all the latest digital trends and research, with Family Zone.

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Topics: Cyber Bullying, Parental Controls, Screen time, Mobile Apps, Excessive Device Usage, online safety, child development, passive screen-time

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