The Impact of Smart Phone Use on Our Children

I was in the mood for a big, juicy burger, and talked my husband into taking me to an upscale hamburger joint for dinner.  While we were enjoying our appetizers and drinks, a young family of four sat down at the table next to us.  From the moment they sat down, the young boys, approximately six and eight years old, pulled out their electronic devices, and quietly sat and amused themselves.  Mom and dad parked their smart phones on the table in front of them, as I do with my reading glasses case, while they looked over the menu.  They had a discussion about what to order for the boys and themselves, and then pulled out their smart phones and withdrew into their own worlds.  They pulled themselves away from their phones to order, but then returned to their devices immediately afterwards.  The boys never looked up from their electronics.  They were all silent.  It was weird.  There was no conversation and no interaction between any of them.  It was sad.

Look, I love my smart phone too.  It gives me the world at my fingertips.  I can find out the answer to whatever question I have at a moment’s notice.  I can converse with my husband and my daughters through text, and I can withdraw into my own little world with a good crossword puzzle, or to check out my Facebook feed.  It’s an amazing little machine; however, only if we know how to limit its use.

What are we teaching our kids when we withdraw into our phones and stop interacting with them?  At first, we are teaching them through imitation, to want to play on a smart phone.  I remember very clearly, when my friend’s young son grabbed her iPhone and put it between his ear and his shoulder the way his mom did.  At the tender age of one and one-half, he already knew what to do with it.  As our children age, we are teaching them that they are not that important to us.  We are teaching them that they have to compete, not just with their siblings, or the environment, but with our smart phones too.  And what are we not teaching them?  We are not teaching them to converse and engage in socially appropriate ways.  We are not teaching them to read social contexts, facial features, and environmental cues.  We are not teaching them how to play with the toys that are around them.  We are losing ourselves in little machines, rather than our children, whom we love so much!

When parents engage in the overuse of their smart phones, they become unpredictable, unreliable, and often unreachable.  Their parenting becomes interrupted and chaotic.  In a 2016 study at the University of California, Irvine, researchers concluded that chaotic parenting during the critical time that offspring require nurturing, produces unhappy offspring, who exhibit risky behaviors, drug use, and depression in adolescence and adult life.  This is because of the need for offspring to have consistent and reliable input to increase neuron networks.

Another study published in Developmental Science, concluded that smart phone use can be compared with other forms of maternal withdrawal and unresponsiveness, (such as depression), and can impact an infant’s social and emotional functioning adversely. This impact creates children who are negative and who have poor emotional recovery.

So what is the takeaway here?  Smart phone use has its place in our lives, but it must be limited.  We need to nurture, interact and engage with our children, so that they will develop socially and emotionally, and will become adept at social engagement and conversation, themselves.  That is our job as parents, and we need to do it well.

Written by Lisa H. Bernholz-Balsam MS, CCC-SLP/A
Speech and Language Therapist, Therapeutic Nursery
Kaplen JCC on the Palisades