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Parents’ smartphone addiction linked to children’s overuse of the devices



The more parents demonstrate addictive behaviors with smartphones, the more difficulties they have in regulating their young children’s use of the devices, according to a new study. The findings suggest that excessive smartphone use also is associated with the stress of parenting.

A young mother uses a smartphone while her baby son plays nearby with his toys mheim3011/iStock / Getty Images

“We really need to start raising awareness among parents that their behaviors possibly have an association with their children’s [behaviors] as well,” lead author Korena S. Klimczak of Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Va., said in an interview at the annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies.

“I think a lot of parents are not really considering how their smartphone use might be possibly influencing their children,” Ms. Klimczak said. “I think that’s an area pediatricians can start to target as they see parents using the smartphone in the room or passing the phone off to their child in the room.”

Previous research already has linked excessive smartphone use with problematic parenting. Parents distracted by their phones tend to communicate less with their children in the moment, and parents with smartphone addiction symptoms are “less likely to actively mediate their child’s smartphone use,” Ms. Klimczak and her associates noted.

For this study, the researchers recruited 355 parents of children aged 6 months to 5 years from an urban Southeastern academic pediatric hospital clinic. Most of the participating parents were black (72%) and most were mothers (79%).

During a well-child visit, the parents filled out the Smartphone Addiction Scale (SAS), the Parental Stress Scale (PSS) and a 16-item survey on their demographics and their children’s smartphone use. The SAS provided a binary variable (yes/no) on whether parents were addicted to their phones.

Starting when the children were between 12 and 17 months old, parents reported their children’s increasing ability to open or turn on a smartphone. Forty percent of parents reported that their children could turn on phones at this age, and the proportion steadily rose to 79% for children aged 4-5 years (P less than .001).

About one-third of children could start applications on their parents’ phones at age 12-17 months, but more than half were watching videos on their parents’ phones at that age. By the time children were aged 18-24 months, 73% of parents reported that the toddlers could open applications on the phones.

Among parents with a smartphone addiction as defined by the SAS, 59% reported finding it difficult to take their phones away from their children, compared with about half as many parents (26%) without a smartphone addiction (P = .001).

That finding appeared to carry over into their children spending more time on their smartphones as well. Among parents with a smartphone addiction, 22% reported that their children spent more than 2 hours a day on their smartphones, compared with 4% of parents without a smartphone addiction (P = .012). Past research suggests that spending that much time on mobile phones can be an obstacle to emotional and cognitive development, Ms. Klimczak said.

The proportion of children who spent time on their parents’ phones for 5-30 minutes, 30-60 minutes, or 1-2 hours was otherwise relatively similar between parents with and without smartphone addiction.

“There were some possible behavioral issues involved with smartphone addiction in parents as well,” she said, given how much more difficulty these parents had with taking phones away from their children. These parents “were more likely to use corporal punishment as well,” she added.

When faced with a hypothetical situation in which the child broke the parent’s phone, parents with high levels of parental stress were “significantly more likely to discipline their child through either spanking or yelling” the researchers reported, and a positive correlation between parental stress and smartphone addiction existed as well (r = .352, P less than .001).

Ms. Klimczak acknowledged that pediatricians already have a lot of ground to cover in each well-child visit, and monitoring parents’ cell phone use does not necessarily need to be a formal screening measure.

Korena Klimczak of Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Va. Tara Haelle/MDedge News

Korena Klimczak

“I think as you see the behavior, you can point it out and maybe gently bring it up,” she said. Pediatricians who notice parents focused on their phones or passing their phones to their children can ask parents at that moment: “I see you using your phone ...” or “I see you’re letting your child use the phone. How often do you let them use the phone [each] day?” Ms. Klimczak said. Gently asking those questions may at least get the parents to think about the issues.

She also recommended incorporating awareness of smartphone addiction and child use of phones into parent education programs in addition to information about safe sleep, breastfeeding, and similar topics. “With how prevalent smartphone use is today, I think it’s at least something to bring up and make them conscious of.”

Ms. Klimczak had no financial disclosures.

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