Could Mom's Smartphone Use Affect Baby's Language Development?

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Key Takeaways

  • Moms speak less to kids when they’re on their smartphones

  • Smartphone use reduced mothers’ speech by 16% to 26%

  • Short-term phone use caused greater reductions in mom's "baby talk"

WEDNESDAY, June 26, 2024 (HealthDay News) -- Mothers tend to speak less to infants when they’re on their smartphones, a new study finds.

Moms talked 16% less to their babies when they were fiddling with their phone, researchers found.

Shorter 1- to 2-minute intervals of phone use interfered with mom-baby interaction even more, decreasing a mother’s baby talk by 26%.

“Our advice to new parents is to be cognizant of the impact phones can have on their ability to be attuned to their child’s needs,” said lead researcher Miriam Mikhelson, a former doctoral student with the University of Texas at Austin. “It is critical for infants to have consistent and responsive care, which can be more difficult with the alluring and consuming nature of a smartphone.”

Prior research has suggested that parents’ phone use could affect a child’s language development, researchers said.

However, most of these studies involved observing parents and children in controlled laboratory experiments.

To get an idea of how parents interact with babies in the real world, researchers strapped audio recorders onto 16 infants for a week.

They then checked these recordings against cell phone logs, to see how smartphone use influences the amount that moms talk with their babies.

“We were surprised by the overall quantity of phone use across participants,” said senior researcher Kaya de Barbaro, an assistant professor of psychology with the University of Texas at Austin. ‘Our sample had an average of 4.4 hours of phone use per 12-hour period. While other studies show comparably high rates of phone use, seeing the numbers, particularly on the higher end, were still striking.”

Smartphone use caused a reduction in mom’s verbal interactions with their babies, particularly if the use occurred in short intervals.

This might be because short-term phone use involves non-verbal activities like checking e-mail or texting, while long-term phone use would involve phone or video chat conversations that would increase the amount of speech a child hears, researchers speculated.

What’s more, this affect of phone use on speech between mother and infant became pronounced at specific times of day -- 9 a.m. to 10 a.m., noon to 1 p.m., and 3 p.m. to 4 p.m., researchers reported June 26 in the journal Child Development.

These times coincide with periods during which moms are interacting more with their kids, such as at mealtimes or when siblings are coming home from school or daycare, researchers said.

Parents could be underestimating the impact of phone use on their behavior with their infants, the researchers said.

“Some parents, however, may not have the luxury of turning off or putting their phones away due to work obligations or other responsibilities they hold,” Mikhelson said. “For parents who are already anxious about the quality of their caregiving, like many new parents are, we recommend that they simply try their best to attend to their children -- and to be honest with themselves about the degree to which smartphones hinder their ability to do so.”

“Being aware of how easily we become consumed by our phones, despite our best intentions, is an important first step,” Mikhelson added in a journal news release.

Future research should look into how specific types of phone use affect interactions between parents and babies, the researchers said. It also would be good to understand this effect during different activities like meals, playtime and breastfeeding.

More information

The National Institutes of Health have more on child language development.

SOURCE: Society for Research in Child Development, news release, June 26, 2024

What This Means For You

Smartphone use could be hampering a child’s ability to learn language from his or her parents.

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