New Study Looks At How Often Moms Use Their Phones Around Their Kids

A new study published in Child Development looked at how mothers speak less to infants during detected real-world phone use.

“Our study looks at how phone use affects parental speech around their children,” study author Kaya de Barbara told us. “We expected that when parents use their phones they would speak less around their kids.”

Whether we are parents or not, as a culture our time and our attention is really dominated by phones right now. The research team was interested how attention to our phones might affect interactions with our kids.

“Parents in our study downloaded an app onto their phones that allowed them to track their phone use minute by minute, using screen time logs,” de Barbara told us. “Their infants wore a special audio recording device that can automatically detect the amount of words spoken around them.” 

The researchers only wanted to examine times when infants were awake, so they also tracked when infants were sleeping using a device similar to a fitness watch. Then, they combined these data to see whether the amount words spoken changed during the minutes when parents’ phones were on versus off.

We found that parents speak less around their kids when they are using their phones,” de Barbara told us. “On average, 27% less words were spoken around children when parents used their phones for short periods of time (1-3 minutes at a time) , and 16% less words were spoken around children when parents used their phones overall (irrespective of the duration of phone use).”

What was most surprising explained de Barbara was just how much time parents spend on their phones when they’re with their kids – on average four hours a day in their sample. This is in line with national data for phone use but it is always a reality check to see those kinds of numbers.

“We all use our phones – and we have so many reasons to do so,” de Barbara told us. « Our work suggests that phone use has implications for how we interact with our children, and we should be mindful of how we use our phones around them. Importantly, we also found that at certain times of the day parent phone use was not associated with speech overheard by infants.” 

The research team believe this suggests that the relationship between phone use and speech to kids is complex — for example, at certain times of the day, or during certain activities, parents are using their phones in a way that doesn’t interrupt their interactions with their infants. 

“This might be during times they wouldn’t be otherwise engaging with their baby, like when they are playing on their own or when they are being held by someone else,” de Barbara told us.


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