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The Effects of Our Own Media Use on Children

The new science behind how our cell phone use might distract us from our kids.

These days, social media has become so integrated into our lives that it’s hard to imagine a time before we had Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Facebook has nearly 2 billion users, and according to various online reports, we spend about 50 minutes on Facebook every day, and a whopping 5 hours each day looking at our smartphones. The frequency with which we typically engage with media has led several researchers to ask whether there are any consequences of spending so much time online, and in particular, whether all of this media time has negative effects on us, and on our children.

A recent study suggested that there might indeed be some downsides to spending time on social media, and found that the more people engage with social media like Facebook, the less happy they report being (Shakya & Christakis, 2017). Another group of researchers studied this issue by texting college-aged adults five times a day for two weeks to see whether they had recently used Facebook and whether using Facebook made them feel good or bad afterward. The researchers reported that the more people were using Facebook at any given time during the day, the worse they felt the next time the researchers texted them. Further, the more people said they used Facebook over the entire two-week period, the worse they felt overall (Kross et al., 2013).

Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr
Source: Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr

Besides potentially making you feel not so great, media use can also distract you from your kids, which can impact the quality of your interactions. In a very recent study, researchers looked at changes in babies’ behaviors when their mothers were suddenly distracted by a cell phone. In the study, researchers observed babies aged 7 months to 2 years simply played with their moms in a lab. At some point during playtime, the experimenters interrupted the mothers, asking them to fill out a survey on their cell phones, ignoring their babies for 2 minutes. The researchers found that when mothers were busy using their cell phones, their babies played less while trying to get their mothers’ attention back. Further, when moms were finished with the survey and turned their attention back to their babies, the babies didn’t fully recover and explored the room and toys less than before moms were interrupted. This effect was most pronounced in babies whose mothers reported using cell phones a lot at home, suggesting that using cell phones during play might make it harder for children to re-engage with their parents later on (Myruski, Gulyayeva, Birk, Pérez‐Edgar, Buss, & Dennis‐Tiwary, 2017).

Being interrupted by a cell phone can not only change babies’ behaviors in a simple playful interaction, but it also might make it more difficult for them to learn. In another very recent study, researchers brought mothers and their 2-year-olds into a lab and asked mothers to teach their 2-year-olds two brand new words. While the mothers were attempting to teach their children one of the two words, the researchers made sure that they were interrupted by their cell phones. The researchers found that 2-year-olds only learned new words when their mothers were not distracted by their phones during the teaching portion of the study, regardless of the number of times the mother presented each new word. In other words, it didn’t matter how many times moms said the new word out loud—if they were interrupted by their cell phones, their toddlers had a hard time learning (Reed, Hirsh-Pasek, & Golkinkoff, 2017).

I’m not telling you all of this to make you feel bad about using your phones in front of your kids or to imply in any way that social media is going to ruin your life. In my own house, my two-year-old is constantly taking my phone away from me, telling me “no phone” while we are engaged in playing his favorite new pretend games. So I’m just as guilty of checking my email and looking at Facebook while my child is desperately trying to get my attention as anyone else. Since social media use is a relatively new phenomenon and research is relatively slow, we are just beginning to understand how media is changing our daily lives and how it is affecting our children, for better or for worse. And while there are clearly some negative consequences to media use, there’s a lot to feel positive about too, as media can be used in creative ways to promote education, it can provide new means by which young people express themselves, and it can expose them to new ideas and provide the opportunity and inspiration to encourage children to learn new skills. The take-home message here is that whatever we use it for, media can be distracting if we use it at the wrong time: Just like it can distract us when we are driving or when we’re supposed to be working, it shouldn’t be surprising that it can also distract us when we are trying to interact with our kids. In other words, media can be great when used appropriately, but perhaps it’s a good idea to put the phone away when we’re trying to spend some real-life face time with our children.


Kross, E., Verduyn, P., Demiralp, E., Park, J., Lee, D. S., Lin, N., ... & Ybarra, O. (2013). Facebook use predicts declines in subjective well-being in young adults. PloS one, 8, e69841.

Myruski, S., Gulyayeva, O., Birk, S., Pérez‐Edgar, K., Buss, K. A., & Dennis‐Tiwary, T. A. (2017, in press). Digital disruption? Maternal mobile device use is related to infant social‐emotional functioning. Developmental Science.

Reed, J., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2017). Learning on hold: Cell phones sidetrack parent-child interactions. Developmental Psychology, 53, 1428-1436.

Shakya, H. B., & Christakis, N. A. (2017). Association of Facebook use with compromised well-being: a longitudinal study. American Journal of Epidemiology, 185, 203-211.

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