How many times do you check your smartphone in the course of an average day?  

While being able to talk, share pictures, or text with virtually anybody in the world has transformed modern life in ways we are just beginning to appreciate, there is definitely a dark side to all this new technology. Glancing at your phone or tablet screen or answering a phone call often means interrupting whatever task you happen to be doing at the time. Though smartphone users often believe they are good multi-taskers, that really isn't supported by most laboratory studies.  In fact, the overwhelming majority of people using mobile technology show marked attention problems that can reduce their overall effectiveness on a wide range of tasks.   This is why most jurisdictions ban mobile technology use when driving given the accident risks that can come from splitting attention between a smartphone screen and keeping eyes on the road.   

Smartphones and other digital devices can also disrupt social activities as well, especially when those activities involve face-to-face interactions.   While these interruptions can seem relatively trivial for adults, what about when parents or caretakers are interacting with children?  For toddlers learning language skills, the social dyads they form with parents depend on prompt and meaningful communicating.  Along with learning new words, children learn to respond to eye gaze and other forms of non-verbal communication.  So how does the kind of disruption that can come from smartphone use interfere with the word learning?

A new research study published in the journal Development Psychology examined how cell phone interruptions can impact word learning in two-year--old children.   Jessa Reed of Columbus, Ohio's Temple University and a team of co-researchers conducted a laboratory experiment using a group of forty-four mothers and their children, all of whom were recruited from the Philadelphia area.  

For every participating mother-child dyad, there were two trials under which mothers would attempt to teach their child one invented word per trial.  The words used were: blicking (which was meant to be the same as bouncing) and frepping (shaking).  To ensure that the word learning process be as similar as possible, each mother was specifically trained on how to teach these words using a gender neutral doll as a model. They were then given a free play period with their children using toy blocks before the mother was signaled to begin the trial.

During one trial, the word learning continued uninterrupted but the other trial involved a 30-second telephone call in the middle of the word learning.  The order of the two trials was randomly varied for each participant dyad.  After each trial, children were assessed using the Intermodal Preferential Looking Paradigm (IPLP) to determine how well they learned the new word.  The IPLP involves a video featuring Sesame Street characters presenting two scenes shown side-by-side simultaneously. If children succeeded in learning the new word, they were more likely to attend to the scene featuring that word and not to the matching scene.  Attention was measured by how much time they spent on one scene over another.

In the experimental condition in which the mother received a telephone call, most mothers just shifted their attention away from their child to attend to the call.  Some mothers prepared their children for the interruption with phrases such as "Hold on, sweetheart, Mama’s getting a phone call.”   When the phone conversation occurred, toddlers typically responded either by waiting patiently for their mothers to resume talking to them or else wandering away in search of a new diversion.    

Results showed that toddlers  were far more likely to learn the invented words during the uninterrupted condition than during the condition which was interrupted by the phone call.  This difference appears to be due primarily to the quality of the dyadic communication between mothers and their children.   While mothers actually used the invented words more often in the interrupted condition rather than the control condition (24 times vs 20 times),  toddlers in the control condition still learned better.

As Jessa Reed and her co-authors suggest, toddlers learn best under conditions of contingent responding, i.e. when they are directly interacting with parents who attend  to them.   This kind of joint attention to language learning enables children to make the often-tricky association between spoken words and the objects or concepts to which they correspond.  Since the first two or three years of life represents a critical period in a child's language, children are especially receptive to verbal and non-verbal cues.

Though the kind of disruption that comes from cell phone calls are extremely brief, these research results strongly suggest that even brief disruptions can make a difference in a child's learning.    Seeing mothers shift their attention away from them, including changes in eye contact, emotion, and body posture, to talk to some invisible stranger can often lead toddlers to "reset" their attention completely.   This means caregivers need to spend extra time to reestablish the learning dyad.

 Also, since phone calls can occur any time or place, this means that the risk of  interruptions is always present.  Other research studies looking at parents of small children suggest that parents often bring their phones with them just about everywhere, including during meal times or during play periods meaning that children quickly learn how easily their parents are distracted.   

But the constant interruptions provided by electronic media doesn't just affect language learning.  Studies have also shown that the "bells and whistles" that often come with educational learning software can often distract children and prevent them from learning as effectively as they otherwise might.   Even children who try studying while watching television find difficulty multitasking  than they might if the television was kept turned off  (the same can be said for music or other forms of electronic distraction that can compromise a child's attention).   

So what lessons can this kind of research suggest to parents as they interact with their young children?   As you can see, constant phone interruptions  can have more serious consequences for parents than you might think.   So consider turning that phone off when you're with your family.  Some things are more important than staying in touch.

References

Reed, J., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2017). Learning on hold: Cell phones sidetrack parent-child interactions. Developmental Psychology, 53(8), 1428-1436. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/dev0000292

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