Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Cell Phones: A Near and Possible Danger for Young Children

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn an earlier blog I considered the dangers of teens sleeping with cell phones. Specifically that the “ on call status” was in most cases not choice but obligation, anxious need, and even addiction.

A recent article by Deborah Fallows in The Atlantic, entitled, “ Papa, Don’t Text,” invites us to consider the impact of cell phones on those too young to use them.

Fallows asks us to consider the impact on babies and small children when the parent or caregiver is present but talking with someone else on a cell phone or present but silently texting.

Two incidents come to mind:

  • Recently I saw a man sitting in a sandbox with his little son doing his best to build a sandcastle with his right hand while holding and speaking on a cell phone with his left…What important things could have been voiced about that castle?
  • A brave young mother had her 3 year old in a grocery store shopping cart. The mom was walking and talking on the phone as the little one understandably was reaching for and putting things into the cart. Unruffled, the mom kept talking while reaching for the items and taking them out…There was really so much they could have talked about.

The reality is that the baby is not going to complain and the toddler will become accustomed to the distracted or unresponsive parent. Eventually he/she will play a video game while the parent is busy checking a cell phone.

The problem is that neither the parent nor child will register the loss and deprivation of the missed attunement, verbalization and conversation between parent and child.

Parent-Child Conversation Impacts Language Proficiency

What Fallows points out is that whereas research on the specific impact of cell phones on very young children may not  yet be available; what is available is research on the importance of adult-child conversation on young children’s stages of language development and proficiency.

  • A 2009 study in Pediatrics found that the greater the actual two-sided conversations (as measured on recording devices) between children and adults, the higher the children scored at every stage of language proficiency- as compared with children simply being put in the presence of language (TV) or having adults talk to them without any exchange.
  • A study reported in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences in 2003 found that babies in groups where mothers were instructed to respond to their vocalizations with smiles and touches, vocalized more with more complex sounds and later articulation
  • Another study found that only the 9 month olds who were exposed to mini lessons of a foreign language (Mandarin) by an actual Chinese speaker, as opposed to electronic audio versions, learned to discern the foreign sounds. Verbal exchange with a real person made the difference.

Parent-Child Conversation Impacts Thinking and Problem Solving

If recognizing our role in our children’s language proficiency doesn’t give us pause to put down the cell phones and let the calls go to voicemail, recognition of our potential on our children’s thinking and problem solving ability may.

  • Less known than Piaget, A Russian psychologist named Lev Vygotsky maintained that it is the child’s interaction with their social culture, particularly the verbal collaboration with the parent that facilitates thinking and reasoning potential.
  • As elaborated recently on an NPR show “ Inner Voices,” this theory holds that it is the external dialogue between parent and child (for example a parent and child working on a puzzle, with the parent asking the child to see and feel the shape of the pieces and their discussion of where a pointy piece might fit) that facilitates problem solving.
  1. According to this theory, parent-child dialogue becomes internalized as a way of thinking. It is reflected in the child’s self-narration, as he/she is busy working on a picture or building with blocks. It is the origin of what ultimately becomes silent internal thinking.

What Can a Parent Do?

This is a culture of parents that will go to such lengths to do and get what is best for their children from conception on, that they have been faulted for doing too much, inviting helplessness and characterized as “ hovering” and “helicoptering.” As such, it seems almost paradoxical that the suggestion here seems to be to do more.

Actually the suggestion is to stop and possibly consider:

  • The real danger of cell phones for young children is the legacy of a culture in which cell phones and social media are so intrinsic to our lives that we hardly know what they take from us—much less our children.
  • MIT Professor Sherry Turkle tells us that in our technological universe we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection. We are so busy staying connected; we do the face-to-face conversations less and less with everyone in our lives.
  • We yearn for the depth, the intimacy, the unexpected knowing and the nourishment that only comes from really talking to another; but we seem to have forgotten where to find it.
  • We mistakenly seek more from technology as a solution.

For our own sake and for our children, it is crucial to remember that when it comes to  development, language, thinking, bonding, intimacy, laughter and memories—nothing will ever replace a Dad talking to a newborn in the middle of the night, a Mom and a little one talking about the steps to make Jell-O, a family discussing the pieces to a puzzle that may take years to complete…uninterrupted quality time to speak with the most important people in your life!