Broken connection: Smartphone use in front of your child

Sending a message, scrolling through your social media, or checking your e-mail in front of your child. Research shows that this affects the bond with your child.

This post is also available in Dutch.

The mobile phone. Fifty years ago, we said, “No way, I don’t need it, I won’t get any calls,” and, “I don’t like the thought of being constantly connected”. Nowadays it is impossible to imagine our daily lives without our mobile phones. We use it not only to make calls, it also serves for updating our calendar, reading the news, and work-related tasks. The fact that new parents also spend a lot of time on their phones – in the presence of their babies – is therefore no surprise, but how does this affect the bond with their child?

Still Face Experiment

The bond between parent(s) and baby is crucial to a child’s healthy development. Building this bond requires parents to be sensitive to their child’s cues and respond appropriately. Undivided attention during interactions is essential for this, as demonstrated in the 1970s with the Still Face Experiment. During this experiment, that consists of three periods, parent and child sit across from each other. In the first period, the parent directs all their attention toward the child. Afterwards, in the still face period, the parent ceases all interaction and stares emotionlessly ahead. Babies become visibly upset during this period and make every effort to regain attention. This is also reflected in the brain: While the brain waves of parent and child are in sync during the interaction, this connection is broken during the still face.

The Still Face Experiment with a twist

Although the Still Face Experiment received a lot of positive attention, critics were wondering how realistic a still face is during everyday interactions. With the rise of mobile phones, envisioning such a scenario has become much more plausible. A modern version of the Still Face Experiment was developed in which parents turn their attention to their cell phones during the still face period. Apart from this minor modification, the research procedure and children’s reactions remained identical to those of the original. As soon as parents turned their attention to their phones, babies began to cry and wiggle, trying to win back their parent’s attention. The synchronization in the brain waves between the child and parent also seems to be lost during phone use.

Resilient bond

As a parent, then, should you never use your phone in front of your child? The bond between child and parent can take quite a beating, as the final period of the experiment shows. In this part, parents turn their attention back to their child. Most children recover quickly and visibly enjoy the renewed attention. So, a short-term interruption of attention seems quite harmless. The long-term effects of repeated phone use are not yet known. This is also more difficult to investigate because it is difficult to get a fair and objective picture of the time parents spend on their phones.

In conclusion, there is no need to panic (yet), but plenty of reasons for parents to be aware of their phone use in the company of their child(ren). Perhaps we should introduce a maximum screen time not only for children but also for parents.


Author: Eline de Boer

Buddy: Judith Scholing

Editor: Lucas Geelen

Translation: Helena Olraun

Editor translation: Elena Markantonakis

Image by Vitolda Klein via Unsplash

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