By Ángela Funez
We’re all addicted to our smartphones to some degree, but few parents realize the intellectual and emotional damage that this dependence can cause in their children, especially the littlest ones. According to studies from the field of neuroscience, linguistic, emotional, social and motor skills develop rapidly in the brain during the first three years of life. In fact, during this period, 700 to 1,000 new neural connections form each second. Vocabulary development begins between the ages of 15 and 18 months and continues through the preschool years.
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Face-to-face interaction stimulates learning and emotional development
In an article that I read recently, Jenny Radesky, a pediatrician at Boston Medical Group, notes that excessive use of cell phones by parents is affecting not only how they talk to their children but also how they relate to them.
Radesky brings attention to the decades of research that show that face-to-face interactions between parents and children, from the earliest moments of a child’s life, are of utmost importance to learning, behavior and emotional development. Through face-to-face interaction, young children not only develop language, but they also learn about their own emotions and how to regulate them. By watching adults, children learn how to have a conversation and how to read people’s facial expressions, skills that eventually help them to become better communicators.
Parents engrossed in their phones tend to get angry easily
Radesky and two other researchers spent one summer observing 55 different groups of parents and their young children interacting in fast food restaurants. In 40 of the 55 cases studied, parents used their smartphones during the meal, and many of them completely ignored their children.
They also found that the children of parents who were engrossed in their devices were more likely to misbehave in order to get their attention, and at the same time, the parents were more irritable. According to psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of the book The Big Disconnect, this is because when mom is texting or replying to emails, the “doing” part of the brain is active, and a sense of urgency is generated to complete the task. As a consequence, mom gets upset more easily when her child interrupts her, to the point where she may yell or be unkind.
Children who feel ignored by their parents
Steiner-Adair warns that when parents give higher priority to their digital activities than to their children, there may be profound emotional consequences for the child. Children interpret this behavior as evidence that they are not important or interesting enough for their parents; they feel rejected, which affects their relationship with their parents, their self-esteem, and their social performance.
When we think of face-to-face interactions, we may imagine a father with his five-year-old, but valuable interactions begin very early on. As Dr. Jack Shonkoff of Harvard explains, when a baby hears those around her talking, after a few months she begins to respond with sounds, babbling, or squeals. Have you noticed how babies react when you look into their eyes and talk to them calmly and affectionately? Their eyes light up, they usually smile, and they begin to babble with more enthusiasm.
Shonkoff emphasizes the importance of talking and listening to children, activities that should not taper off as children grow. On the contrary, parents must make an effort to form emotional connections and set rules to limit the amount of time children spend watching TV, playing video games or using the computer. These activities do not stimulate the language area of the brain in the same way that face-to-face conversation does. It’s alarming to think that it’s parents themselves who are unknowingly denying their children the stimulation they need, thus limiting their future opportunities.
Moms and dads, it’s time to reconnect with your children who are hungry for attention, communication and an emotional connection. I’d like to propose a challenge: put down your smartphone for at least 30 minutes when you’re eating or spending time with your children. What do you think?
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Ángela Funez is a senior communications specialist in the External Relations Department at the IDB. Follow her @angelafunez