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News and Analysis

Why Children Need Parents To Put The Phone Down And Look Them In The Eye

It’s nearly impossible not to smile at a young baby when confronted with a toothless grin — and even a difficult day can improve when a child, unprompted, offers a wave. These connections with children are sweet and endearing, but they offer something even more important: they give them developmental skills that will help them excel later in life.

Parents may be aware of their small child’s need for interaction beginning at a young age, and research has shown that eye contact in particular is imperative for infants’ development. In a 2002 paper, researchers conducted experiments showing the importance of making eye contact with newborns. “Making eye contact is the most powerful mode of establishing a communicative link between humans,” the authors noted. “During their first year of life, infants learn rapidly that the looking behaviors of others conveys significant information.” They found that babies preferred looking at people who were making eye contact with them, noting that “[t]he exceptionally early sensitivity to mutual gaze [eye contact] … is arguably the major foundation for the later development of social skills.”

Interactions with children at a young age play a major role in the development of the child, especially communication skills. Abby Barnes, a speech therapist, discusses how undivided attention from caregivers helps babies master communication capabilities even before they can talk. Barnes details how simply speaking to one’s child can help them in so many areas, such as “[p]lay development,” “[t]heir ability to form phrases and sentences,” “[b]ack and forth interactions,” “eye contact,” and skills in communicating what they want and need. All of these skills help them grow and become high-functioning adults in society who have the ability to interact with people in both casual circumstances and on deep, emotional levels.

In recent years, however, a new object has been the focus of our attention and children are taking note. Young babies are often enthralled with a parent’s smartphone. This can be the case even if the child is not allowed to use the phone or interact with the screen. The lights are enticing, but they are also picking up on our own obsession with the devices.

Dubbed “distracted parenting,” concern has increased over parents’ use of their mobile devices when they are with their children — not only because of the dangers it may pose in a high-risk setting, but because of how the child’s development could be impaired.

According to Dr. Michael Mintz, a clinical psychologist at Children’s National Hospital, babies notice the attachment adults have to their devices as they get close to turning one year old. “They observe adults spending long periods of time looking at their phones, and they probably notice how frequently we tend to have our phones in our hands,” Mintz told Romper.

Father working from home while holding toddler

MoMo Productions. Getty Images.

Children’s device activity is a common consideration among parents who try to limit or control how often their child uses a screen. They might be missing the point, however, if they focus all of their efforts on how to regulate the screen time of their kids instead of considering how often their own eyes are glued to screens when they are around their little ones. Research shows that when parents use cell phones in front of children, it has a negative impact on the child’s overall development and wellbeing.

In a 2022 study, researchers found that parents reported that their children had a lower emotional intelligence if the parent used their mobile device more often in front of their child. A 2016 study showed that a mother’s phone use has an impact on the social-emotional functioning of infants. When a mother reported using her cell phone more often, the child was less likely to explore his or her surroundings while she was distracted. Children also engaged less with the mother when the mother went back to interacting normally with the baby.

Boston University School of Medicine researchers also discovered that mothers who used their cell phones were less likely to engage in conversation with their children during mealtimes. They had 20% fewer verbal interactions and 39% fewer nonverbal interactions, which can ultimately result in a less emotionally secure child.

Parental use of cell phones affects the ways in which children behave in public, as well, which is evidenced through an experiment conducted by one of the corresponding authors for the previous study, Dr. Jenny Radesky, in 2015. Radesky, along with two other researchers, watched 55 caregivers as they ate with at least one child in fast food settings. As they observed, they took notes, finding that 40 caregivers used their devices while eating with the children. Radesky noted that lots of the caregivers were more interested in the phone than they were in the children.

“[Children] learn language, they learn about their own emotions, they learn how to regulate them,” she said. “They learn by watching us how to have a conversation, how to read other people’s facial expressions. And if that’s not happening, children are missing out on important development milestones.”

Full length of mother lifting daughter with legs while lying in park

Morsa Images. Getty Images.

Radesky discovered that when a child’s parents were heavily absorbed in their mobile devices, the child was more likely to misbehave, attempting to receive attention from the parent. The researchers also pointed out that the more a caregiver was absorbed by a device, the more likely they were to react sternly to a child acting out.

Catherine Steiner-Adair is a psychologist and author of “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age.” She spoke with 1,000 children, interviewing them about their parents’ use of cell phones and told NPR that the discussions often included feelings like “sad, mad, angry and lonely.” One girl told Steiner-Adair that she felt “boring…because [my dad] will take any text, any call, anytime — even on the ski lift!”

The ways in which parents connect with their children have major implications for the psychological wellbeing of the child and who he or she will become in the future. By gazing at our phones instead of our children, we are failing to provide them with the connections they crave. As mobile devices take the place of in-person interactions and allow us to receive information at a moment’s notice, they threaten to become a barrier between ourselves and the people we are able to impact the most.


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