Hey, cellphone mom: Your children are calling
The little girl sobbed as she held her foot, bruised from playing on the slide at a park in Bloomfield, N. J. The baby-sitter, who had been...
Newhouse News Service
The little girl sobbed as she held her foot, bruised from playing on the slide at a park in Bloomfield, N.J.
The baby-sitter, who had been on her cellphone for about 15 minutes, put it down and tended to the child.
A few minutes later, however, the young woman was back on the cell, cradling it at her neck, as she placed the girl's brother in a bucket swing.
The baby-sitter's phone conversation went on for nearly another half-hour.
Go anywhere — playgrounds, community pools, supermarkets — and you'll see mothers, fathers and caregivers talking or texting on their cellphones and BlackBerrys at the same time they are supposed to be supervising children.
They may think of it as another good way to multitask, but child-development experts say such behavior can have serious consequences for young children.
"Children don't learn language in a vacuum," said Laura Mize, a pediatric speech and language pathologist in Louisville, Ky.
"They hear adult models, and they interact with parents. They don't learn how to talk from other kids. So when a parent's on the phone, and there's a toddler there trying to communicate, even if it's not even a word, just a sigh, the parent might totally miss that."
Shari Harpaz, a speech pathologist in New York, agreed it can interfere with language development, especially with what's called pragmatic language, or how we interact verbally with others.
"The social use of language, that's the piece that's getting lost," said Harpaz, who said she is seeing an increase in speech-delayed babies and toddlers. Learning social language requires stimulation and the back-and-forth of talking to someone, most often a parent, she said.
"You can watch Dora (the cartoon character) and she may tell you to point to the star, but Dora's not going to respond to you," said Harpaz, who is a consultant to ebeanstalk.com, an online toy store that specializes in age- and developmentally-appropriate toys. Harpaz blogged about the issue at ebeanstalk.com.
The scientific angle
There is scant research linking lags in childhood development with parents obsessively using technology. However, a recent study found mothers who frequently used a cellphone during pregnancy had children with behavioral problems by the time they reached age 7.
Researchers asked Danish mothers of more than 13,000 children participating in a birth cohort study to fill out a questionnaire about their children's behavior. The children whose mothers frequently used a cellphone during pregnancy were 80 percent more likely to have emotional, social and behavioral problems, including hyperactivity.
But the authors could not conclude that the cause was solely the result of fetal exposure to radio frequency radiation, since it also is likely these same women continued heavy cell use after they gave birth.
More study is needed.
But the concept of technology use distracting parents from their children hit home with Jennifer Merritt, a working mother who writes on The Wall Street Journal blog The Juggle. Merritt said she is among those parents at the playground with their BlackBerry.
"I know I'm not the only mom feverishly answering e-mails or checking in from the playground at 6 p.m. on a Wednesday or on the weekend."
Harpaz, the New York speech pathologist, said parents need to be more "mentally present" for their young children.
"Pick a time that works for you: dinnertime, bath time, car rides, a place where there isn't a lot of distractions. And don't introduce any," she said.
Child psychiatrist Michael Brody, a professor at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, said keeping up with what's going on in a child's life is important for parents.
"Five years ago, parents would bring a child to see me, and I'd know at least they had spent 15 to 20 minutes in the car," said Brody, who chairs the television and media committee of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. "It's a great opportunity to talk to a kid."
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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