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How parents’ smartphone use can affect babies and young children

Smartphone use can affect babies’ mental health, their speech development and could put them at risk of overfeeding if parents are preoccupied

Smartphones come into the parenting equation long before children start asking for, and eventually getting, their first phone. But the impact of parental phone use on babies, children and teenagers is little talked about and only beginning to be researched.

In the 16 years since the first iPhone was released in the US in 2007, the smartphone has transformed so many ways we function, for better and for worse. Parenting is not immune from both positive and negative effects.

“We are in unchartered developmental territory,” New Zealand researcher Miriam McCaleb told a webinar hosted by the Psychological Society of Ireland, in advance of her speaking at the Congress of World Association for Infant Mental Health in Dublin during the summer. But there’s no doubt that the smartphone is now an interloper in childrearing.

It’s a device that can both connect us with people all over the globe but also undermine our relationship with those sitting in the same room. It competes for our attention, sometimes to the detriment of those who mean the most to us. Bear in mind that McCaleb’s gathering of data in research this year at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, shows that women with a six-week-old baby spend an average of more than four hours a day on their phone, picking them up, that’s the phone not the baby, more than 100 times during that period.


“Do parents know their unconscious phone habits have the potential to cause harm?” wondered McCaleb, who is looking at the impact of phone use in the presence of infants. She has found that parents perceive the risks to be around supervision and radiation, with no recognition of the potential developmental effects if emotional and verbal engagement with babies is constantly interrupted. Without wanting to add to the heap of guilt that comes with modern parenting, she suggested greater awareness and small changes could make a difference.

Here are seven things to consider about parental phone use in front of the children, from infancy to adulthood.

1) Potential disrupter of infant mental health

The “serve and return” process that characterises parental and infant interactions is crucial for development, from bonding and secure attachment to acquisition of speech and language. A baby learns about the world from the responses they can elicit through touch, eye gaze and sounds. “We know for babies, receiving consistent and constructive responses has been identified as a corner stone of physical, neuro-physiological and psychological wellbeing,” says McCaleb. Infants are sensitive to interruptions in that interactive flow and unpredictable parental signals create a risk to infant mental health.

A baby intent on engaging with a parent can’t understand if that caregiver’s eyes and attention is diverted away to the phone in hand, no matter how “important” that online message is. All they know is that their parent is no longer responding to them the way they were a minute ago. If these disruptions happen over and over again, constituting so-called “technoference”, they distort the conversation and sow doubt and anxiety in the baby’s mind.

2) Re-enactment of the ‘still face’ experiment

American psychologist Ed Tronick is famous for the “still face” experiment he conducted in the 1970s to illustrate our need for human connection from infancy. It captured on video the impact on a baby when a responsive, interactive mother suddenly shows a still face and stops responding for two minutes. The baby’s confusion and attempts to reignite the mother’s attention soon turn to frustration and distress.

Parents tend to adopt a “still face” when looking at a smartphone so may unwittingly re-enact that experiment. When their attention returns to the baby, joy and relief will be evident, just as in Tronick’s subjects. They can cope with brief periods of parental non-responsiveness but the problems start if that keeps happening for a sustained time.

3) Unwelcome guest at feeding time

Sitting down and feeding a baby may seem a good opportunity to catch up with the outside world. However, it’s a time of bonding and emotional nurture as well as physical refuelling for the baby, so do you really want to bring the phone to the table, so to speak, if you don’t have to?

There is also evidence, according to McCaleb, that parents preoccupied with their phones are missing their infants’ cues of having had enough milk. This puts babies at risk of overfeeding and obesity, as a long-term consequence of the baby’s inability to regulate their feelings of satiation.

4) Implications for maternal health

Isolation can be a problematic feature of early motherhood and new mothers talk of feeing less lonely if they can use their phone to connect with family, friends and an “online village”. However, overuse is, paradoxically perhaps, associated with loneliness, says McCaleb.

“Purposeful use of the smartphone does not seem to interfere with one’s wellbeing, it is absent-minded use.” In other words, sending and receiving messages and calls can be beneficial but going down rabbit holes, aided and abetted by AI-enabled software, doesn’t feel so good.

Some research has suggested that about two hours a day use is the “sweet spot”, more than that and new mothers began to feel lonelier. We also know that “technoference” interferes with maternal sensitivity, which is an essential ingredient for creating a secure attachment relationship. And it is not just the baby but also the mother who benefits from that bond.

5) Link to slower speech development

Babies hear and respond to words and voices even before they are born, so anything that limits that flow could have knock-on effects. A landmark but limited US study in the 1990s found that by the age of three, children of higher-income families were exposed to 30 million more words than children from low-income families. This “gap” correlated with significant language and academic differences later on.

However, early language research at the Hanen Centre in Canada in 2018 highlighted how just hearing words isn’t enough, it is conversational turn-taking, non-verbal and verbal, that is crucial to speech and language development. This proved more important than family income and parental educational achievements.

Research into the impact of parental smartphone use is in its infancy, says Ciara O’Toole, lecturer in speech and language therapy at University College Cork. Some studies show it is linked to negative consequences for speech and language development while others find no effect. “Just because there is an association does not mean there is a cause,” she stresses.

Where it has been found to have an impact, the effect seems to be more on what the child can say, rather than their understanding of words. This, she suggests, may be due to disruption of that “serve and return” process, so toddlers are not getting a chance to say or try out a word, and have it repeated back to them to make sure they are saying it correctly.

“It is not that we have to be interacting with our children 24/7. It’s just being mindful when they’re around: do I really have to be scrolling? Could I have a five-minute interaction with my child? Could we talk about what I am doing on my phone?”

She too wants to avoid any sense of parent-blaming but encourages awareness of the benefits of limiting passive phone use and building in time for books and interactive play, remembering that “joint attention” is key.

As a study published in the Child Development Perspectives journal in 2022 concludes: “While research has identified negative effects on language development, smartphones could enhance interactions if they are used as an object of shared attention or help reduce parents’ stress.”

6) Behaviour follows behaviour

It is an inconvenient truth of parenthood that children watch and copy our bad habits. If you’re on the phone a lot, children and teenagers will do likewise, as soon as they have pestered you into buying one for them. They have learned from their parents that a phone is an urgent and enthralling object of attention.

“If you look at your phone at the table, they are going to look at their phone at the table,” points out Sheila O’Malley, who gives workplace talks on wellbeing and parenting. She recounts how on a recent visit to a restaurant she saw all five members of a family silently engrossed in their individual phones. Not a rare sight these days, with restaurants that offer QR codes for menus playing into that.

“Model what you want to see,” agrees forensic psychologist Maureen Griffin, especially when it comes to keeping phones out of bedrooms at night. If you are not practising what you preach, at least “be open and honest if you need a mobile near at nighttime, for instance if caring for an elderly parent who may ring”, she suggests.

7) Absent minds damage relationships

“Being present is the biggest present you can give another person,” says O’Malley. This applies regardless of age or relationship status. Infants, children, teenagers, partners and other family members or friends can all feel cheated when somebody’s attention is deflected, mid-conversation or during a shared activity, by a phone notification or call. She believes it can be anxiety-inducing when this happens over and over again, with significant implications for family relationships.

In her talks she asks people to recall times when their own parents were hanging out with them and how it made them feel. Responses come under three headings “loved” “valued and “secure”, she reports. In contrast, when asked how they feel when they are with somebody who turns to their phone, they say they have a sense “I am not important”, “I don’t matter”. That is likely to create anxiety in children, not to mention resentment in your partner.

Read more from our screentime series here.