Be­ing drawn into our phones is in­sid­i­ous – but the first three years are the most for­ma­tive for chil­dren’

The Guardian - Weekend - - Front | Experience -

Ear­lier this year, Sara Davidson had what she calls “a mas­sive wakeup call” about the dam­age our re­la­tion­ship with our phones can do to our chil­dren. Davidson (not her real name), a 34-year-old mother of two from Lon­don, was mind­lessly scrolling through her mo­bile, “sucked into the In­sta-vac­uum”, when her eight-month-old baby crawled across the bed­room floor and on to the land­ing. “I heard a thud, then a cry,” she says. “My brain, trans­fixed by my phone, took a cou­ple of sec­onds to re­alise that she had tum­bled down the stairs. I hadn’t even no­ticed she was out of sight. My stom­ach turned.”

Davidson ad­mits that she was very lucky: apart from be­ing a lit­tle shocked, her daugh­ter was fine. Her fall had been bro­ken three steps down. “I was rid­dled with guilt,” Davidson says. “I could have dam­aged my child, and for what? For look­ing at some mean­ing­less non­sense on so­cial me­dia? I can’t bring my­self to tell my hus­band. But it has been enough to make me re-eval­u­ate my re­la­tion­ship with my de­vices. The irony is, I’ve al­ways been pretty mil­i­tant about their screen time – they are both un­der three and don’t watch TV or have iPads.”

Many par­ents feel adrift in this new era of tech­nol­ogy. Those with teenagers feel in con­stant con­flict over screens, where le­niency, rules and even bans all fail in dif­fer­ent ways. Those with younger kids are try­ing to en­ter­tain and ap­pease them, while in­stinc­tively want­ing to limit time on de­vices that seem to do ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble to keep chil­dren hooked. Yet par­ents seem un­aware of the im­pact their own screen use has on their kids – prompt­ing the ed­u­ca­tion minister Damian Hinds to ar­gue last month that they should con­sider putting phones away and pri­ori­tis­ing “one-to-one time with­out gad­gets”, so that chil­dren are prop­erly sup­ported in their learn­ing at home.

Though 72% of par­ents in the US say their teenagers get dis­tracted dur­ing con­ver­sa­tions, ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey from the Pew Re­search Cen­tre in Au­gust, 51% of teens say the same of their par­ents: their time to­gether is in­ter­rupted by on­line friends, news or by work that can seem more im­por­tant. “Just check­ing some­thing on­line” is an im­posed task that has a con­se­quence emo­tion­ally, cog­ni­tively and even phys­i­cally on the par­ent-child re­la­tion­ship. Par­ents stressed out by their chil­dren’s bad be­hav­iour of­ten re­treat into tech­nol­ogy – which then wors­ens their child’s be­hav­iour, ac­cord­ing to re­search pub­lished in the US Pe­di­atric Re­search jour­nal in June this year. Ear­lier re­search from one of the same team found that moth­ers and fa­thers who were ab­sorbed in their de­vices tend to scold their chil­dren more harshly when they are in­ter­rupted.

More wor­ry­ingly, ev­i­dence is build­ing that screen use, par­tic­u­larly of smart­phones, has a neg­a­tive im­pact on the con­ver­sa­tional de­vel­op­ment of very young chil­dren. Chris Cal­land, a child be­hav­iour ex­pert and ad­viser to par­ents, schools and nurs­eries on what has been dubbed “tech­nofer­ence”, says a clear re­la­tion­ship has emerged over the last five years be­tween adults who are glued to their phones and chil­dren who ar­rive at school with­out the lan­guage and in­ter­per­sonal skills ex­pected of a four- to five-year-old. “I was re­cently asked into a school re­cep­tion class to help teach­ers find new ways to get through to par­ents who were per­sis­tently talk­ing or scrolling on their phones, even as they col­lected their chil­dren, took their hands and walked them away from the school gates.”

They con­cluded that one so­lu­tion would be to write scripts that could be handed out to par­ents to re-ed­u­cate them in talk­ing to their chil­dren. For ex­am­ple: “Look at that dog”, or “Tell me one nice thing you’ve done to­day.” At one nurs­ery Cal­land worked with, staff put up pic­tures of phones with red lines through them, be­cause they were strug­gling so hard to gain par­ents’ at­ten­tion. Per­haps this is not sur­pris­ing, when par­ents can now buy a phone holder that clips on to a pram or even a “swipe and feed” ac­ces­sory that can be at­tached to a baby bot­tle. “This is not about judg­ment,” Cal­land says. “Be­ing drawn into our phones is in­sid­i­ous. But the first three years are the most for­ma­tive for chil­dren, and when par­ents have their at­ten­tion locked on their phones, they are miss­ing count­less cues to in­ter­act with their kids.”

In learn­ing lan­guage, the qual­ity of in­ter­ac­tion is crit­i­cal. The “con­ver­sa­tional duet” was first iden­ti­fied in the 1980s to de­scribe the learn­ing stage be­tween 18 months and three years – the in­ti­mate coo­ing and bab­bling be­tween par­ent and child as it learns and re­peats lan­guage through a mag­i­cal en­sem­ble of bod­ily, fa­cial and vo­cal in­ter­ac­tions. In­ter­rup­tions – calls, no­ti­fi­ca­tions, Face­book up­dates or photo-tak­ing – sab­o­tage that ex­change.

In a study pub­lished in the US jour­nal De­vel­op­men­tal Psy­chol­ogy in Au­gust 2017, re­searchers asked two groups of moth­ers to teach their chil­dren two words. In one group, the moth­ers were in­ter­rupted by a phone call; whether they ex­plained the in­ter­rup­tion or not, their chil­dren did not learn the new words. The chil­dren who weren’t in­ter­rupted did. To make sense of this ef­fect, Maryam Ab­dul­lah, a de­vel­op­men­tal psy­chol­o­gist who di­rects the par­ent­ing pro­gramme at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley’s Greater Good Sci­ence Cen­ter, says it’s im­por­tant to recog­nise how cru­cial at­tach­ment is to child de­vel­op­ment. “Chil­dren are learn­ing the rhythm of what it feels like to be in a so­cial in­ter­ac­tion. They are learn­ing so­cial di­a­logue from the re­spon­sive­ness of the par­ent to their changes in emo­tion.”

This del­i­cate, gen­tle process of bond­ing and learn­ing is crit­i­cal for par­ents, too, hon­ing their abil­ity to read their child’s cues and an­tic­i­pate a prob­lem or need be­fore it es­ca­lates. And a key part of at­tach­ment is, un­sur­pris­ingly, at­ten­tion – the very thing our de­vices are so good at steal­ing from us.

Michelle Morris, con­sul­tant speech and lan­guage ther­a­pist at Sal­ford Royal NHS Trust, cau­tions that there is no un­equiv­o­cal data on the ef­fects of tech, be­cause there are so many other vari­ables at work. “We do, how­ever, know about early lan­guage de­vel­op­ment and the im­por­tance of the adult be­ing ‘in the mo­ment’ and start­ing a con­ver­sa­tion. If a child points to some ducks in a park, and the adult is not ‘present’ be­cause they are look­ing at In­sta­gram, they won’t see this non-ver­bal ex­change and will miss the op­por­tu­nity to re­spond ac­cord­ingly. It frus­trates the child and, over time, may re­duce the like­li­hood of them ini­ti­at­ing that type of in­ter­ac­tion again. It re­duces the op­por­tu­nity for ex­po­sure to words, and it misses a vi­tal early learn­ing op­por­tu­nity.”

Dis­tracted par­ent­ing can even dam­age chil­dren phys­i­cally. Some Lon­don child­care agen­cies have re­ported that par­ents are now in­sist­ing that nan­nies sign con­tracts keep­ing them off so­cial me­dia in work hours. But there is noth­ing to stop par­ents catch­ing up on emails or read­ing the news on­line while the kids are in the play­ground. They might be un­nerved to hear that ac­ci­den­tal in­juries in US chil­dren un­der five rose 10% be­tween 2007 and 2012, largely put down to a lack of closer su­per­vi­sion. The first iPhone was launched in 2007.

In an eye-open­ing 2016 study, 50 chil­dren be­tween three and 12 ran round a sports field as fast as they could. Par­ents of half the kids were hunched over their phones and turned away from the field, while the other half had no phone →

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