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Why parents should put their phones down, too

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. – There has been plenty of evidence suggesting that parents should limit their child’s cellphone use, but now, researchers say there are times when mom and dad need to shut off their own phones, too. 

A new study by child psychologists at Temple University suggests that sudden cellphone interruptions could impact a toddler’s language skills.

Jennifer Bell is a Philadelphia-area mom who uses her cellphone in the pursuit of science. Child psychologists asked Bell to teach a new word to her 2-year-old, while also answering a strategically timed cellphone call. Researchers at Temple University’s Language Learning Lab wanted to know if the interruption by the call caused the language-learning process to halt. As it turned out, it does.

“The child doesn't learn the word when they’re interrupted and does learn the word when you have a conversation,” said Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, PhD, a child psychologist at Temple University.

Scientists hypothesized that young children would learn better in a live, back-and-forth conversation. They say that without human social connection, very little learning is accomplished. They call this the “socially gated brain.”

“It’s not just about the quantity, but this kind of research shows us it’s about the quality as well. Preserving that conversation is what matters. As researchers, we want to understand that a little bit better. What works, what doesn't work and why,” Hirsh-Pasek said.

“It was kind of a moment,” Bell said. “There are times that my kids are on devices or I’m on the phone and I am feeling like, 'Mmm, should I be teaching them something and are we passing up learning moments?'” 

So, what can parents do to build children’s language skills? Turn off your cellphone when you are with your child. Start with a few minutes of uninterrupted conversation, and work your way up. Draw your children in by noticing and commenting on what they are doing. Also, understand that language skills you foster now may help your child later in reading and in math. There are critical moments now that could build a solid foundation for learning later. 

As if that information wasn't enough to make you rethink your cellphone habits, researchers at the University of Texas found merely having a smartphone nearby reduces brain power. In a study of 800 cellphone users, researchers found those with their phones in another room did better on tests than those with their phones on their desks.