Are parents on iPhones endangering their kids?

When she wakes up, put the phone away.
When she wakes up, put the phone away.
Image: AP Photo/Thomas Whisenand
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In 2012, the Yale economics grad student Craig Palsson read an article suggesting that parents were spending a lot of time on their smartphones when they were supposed to be watching their young children, and doctors worried that might be causing the kids some harm—as dad is typing an email, his daughter bonks her head on a table edge. While there had been an increase in children’s injuries since smartphones became popular, there was no evidence that it was because of the phones. So Palsson decided to look for a connection.

And he found one. Injuries to children younger than 5 in the US increased by 10% between 2005 and 2012, according to a working paper Palsson released last month. Kids between the ages of 6 and 10 did not see the same increase, suggesting that parental supervision plays a larger role in the younger children’s injuries, because that’s when kids need the most help with not running into things. Palsson compared injury statistics in different US hospitals to the rollout of AT&T’s 3G network in those cities.

The company’s 3G technology turned out to be a good measure for increased smartphone use, Palsson tells Quartz. (For much of that period AT&T had an exclusive deal with Apple for iPhones’ service.) It allowed for faster mobile phone connections, and is the reason that it became so easy and quick to check email or use the internet on smartphones. The effect of 3G on parents’ cell phone usage is twofold, Palsson explains: A 3G rollout suggests that the use of smartphones is becoming more in demand in an area, and it also allows people who already have smart phones to spend more time on them. Tracking injuries in different cities with 3G rollout allowed Palsson to isolate the increased use of smartphones as a reason for injuries, since many cities saw 3G rollouts at different times. Palsson found that on average, injuries in young children increased by about 10% following the rollout of 3G.

Another indication that parental smartphone use is connected with the injuries is the fact the increase in injuries occurred mostly in situations that would require parental supervision, he says. Injuries such as falling down stairs or getting hurt at non-school playgrounds increased, while children remained relatively harm-free in school settings, where teachers aren’t on their phones (or they’re not supposed to be, at least).

As Yale economics professor Dean Karlan notes, there is a type of parenting that calls for letting a kid learn from their own falls. But Palsson, who has two young children and does not own a smartphone, also says that parents who are glued to their phone might be causing more than a physical injury.

“When a child really needs to talk to a parent,” he asks, “is a parent able to pick up on these things? Or are they too distracted?”