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Parents' Smartphone Usage Could Impact Baby’s Language Development

A recent study revealed that moms speak 16% less to their babies when using their phones. With an average daily phone use of 4.4 hours, this reduction in communication can quickly add up.
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By Wyndi Kappes, Associate Editor
Published July 3, 2024
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There’s plenty of chatter about the effect of baby’s screen time on their development, but could your own screen time as a parent have an effect on your little one’s development as well? New research published in the scientific journal Child Development by the University of Texas at Austin looked at how a mother’s smartphone usage impacted her verbal interactions with baby and by extension their long-term speech development.

The first study of its kind to use audio recorders to observe phone and speech habits at home rather than in a lab, researchers studied the behavior of a relatively small sample size of 16 predominantly White mother-infant dyads. Over the course of 1 week, scientists synced phone usage records with audio recordings to determine speech frequency while the mothers interacted with their phones.

Data from the experiment showed that mothers spoke on average 16 percent less to their babies when using their phones. Shorter intervals of 1- to 2-minute phone use saw an even larger disruption in the mother’s interaction with baby, decreasing baby’s speech input by 26 percent. With an observed average of 4.4 hours of phone usage daily it’s easy to see how these disruptions could add up to something larger.

Study authors Dr. Miriam Mikhelson and Dr. Kaya de Barbaro were quick to point out that they were unable to discern the specific factors that drive the association between parental phone use and decreased speech input or its specific long-term impacts on language learning. Because of this and the small likelihood that parents can cold-turkey their cell phone usage, researchers simply encourage caregivers to be more mindful of their phone usage and how it may impact their child.

“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. 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,” the authors told the Society for Research in Child Development.

“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, they added. “Being aware of how easily we become consumed by our phones, despite our best intentions, is an important first step.”

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