Researchers have measured the cost of using a smartphone around your kids

It can wait.
It can wait.
Image: REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
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Before we had smartphones and iPads, parents ignored their children by getting lost in a newspaper story or keeping one eye on the television. Now parents are distracted by mobile technology more than anything else, according to new research, and the consequences are worse.

In a recent study of caregivers, child-behavior specialists at University of Michigan and Boston Medical Center found that parents feel their phones and tablets command more of their attention than other distractions, in way that’s unpredictable and requires more emotional investment. As a result, their interactions with their kids suffer.

The human brain can’t process kids and incoming messages on smartphones at the same time, the scientists say. When parents feel compelled to pay attention to work email—or news alerts, text messages, or a thousand other things that make a phone ping—and their children need attention, parents feel internally conflicted. Mothers and fathers in the study complained of three things: information overload, emotional stress, and a disruption in their families’ routines, all triggered by the constant presence of a phone or tablet.

Parents also told researchers that their responses to news or messages on their phone can negatively affect the way they speak to their kids. The study authors call this a “trickle down” effect. When children act out, trying even harder to get their parents’ attention because they see the adult is engrossed elsewhere, parents also tend to get “snappy” in response.

The findings, which were published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics earlier this month, were drawn from 35 in-depth group and individual interviews with caregivers of children under the age of eight. Interviewees were from diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, and represented a range of educational levels.

Past research has shown that children need face-to-face interaction with a parent or guardian to build language skills and cognitive abilities. The scientists behind this study hope that as parents become aware of the consequences of being tethered to the phone during family time, they will develop strategies to limit their distraction.

Many parents worry that their children are developing an addiction to small screens. But, as this 2015 PSA from the nonprofit group Common Sense shows (with a few tugs on the heartstrings), it’s not always the little ones who need the intervention.