Smartphones bad for children’s social skills?

This graph shows the technology usage of children before age 2. Several researchers agree that at a young age, children are unable to comprehend their purpose.

This graph shows the technology usage of children before age 2. Several researchers agree that at a young age, children are unable to comprehend their purpose.

By William Bowden | Lemke Newsroom

Children’s increased use of smartphones and tablets could hinder the development of parts of their brain that affect social skills, a psychology researcher said.

“Parents who use phones and iPads as a substitute for their own interactions are compromising the development of the attention center of the brain,” UA psychology professor Timothy Cavell said.

The parts of the brain that determine attention span can be severely limited if boredom is immediately alleviated rather than endured, Cavell said.

“The early years of childhood are when the brain is most susceptible to suggestion and molding,” he said of children ages 4 to 10 “Parents who use these device as a means of escaping awkward situations are compromising their children’s ability to cope in the future.”

More than 70 percent of children under the age of 8 use a smartphone weekly and 28 percent of parents use technology as a parenting supplement, according to a 2012 American Academy of Pediatrics study.

“I give my daughter my phone when she misbehaves in public,” UA business student Jessica Black said.

The mood of a child can make a short trip to the grocery store a multi-hour ordeal, Black said. Parents use the bright screen of a cellphone to save the family from lengthy tantrums and public embarrassment.

“I understand that it’s not the best method,” she said. “It works in a pinch and I would feel more uncomfortable if I let the situation get out of control.”

Parents who give their children devices to prevent outbursts are practicing a don’t-think-twice attitude that ignores proven child-rearing techniques, said Gene Saunders, a UA family science professor.

“There’s an odd idea that modern parenting is supposed to be this carefree, no-impact adventure until the child is an adult,” Saunders said. “Parents need to realize that the experience will be full of blood and tears whether they want it to be or not.”

More confrontational methods of parenting increasingly are abandoned because the results are not immediately apparent, he said. The effects of a tablet or phone, on the other hand, are immediate but not permanent.

“Kids shouldn’t be entertained all the time, it isn’t a reflection of how the world works or should work,” he said.

This Graph shows the average age of social maturity from 1990 to 2012.

This Graph shows the average age of social maturity from 1990 to 2012.

Saunders cited an essay published by the Yale University Press on the importance of boredom. Boredom: A Lively History, included a survey that concluded the average person is bored for 40 percent of the day. The article also concluded that the main harm done when using smartphones or tablets as boredom alleviation is that it doesn’t allow children to develop their own methods of coping with boredom.

“It’s like giving someone the solution to a puzzle without even letting them try to solve it,” he said.

Boredom coping mechanisms that are developed internally can increase an overall attention span because they can be engaged depending on the importance of information, he said. External distraction however, is more likely to cause the person to completely ignore the situation.

External distractions also can affect children’s social development, Cavell said.

“If a child can escape from a social situation by turning on a device, their social development will be stunted,” he said.

Researchers at Concordia University in Irvine, Calif., concluded that children born since 1990 have almost 80 percent fewer instances of social interaction in elementary school than previous generations.

“If parents isolate their children, that will eventually lead to the behavior being perpetuated by the child,” he said.

Many parents disagree with electronic babysitting, said Andrew Miller, a parent and UA education major.

Anthony, Miller’s 6-year-old son, is limited to an hour of supervised electronics usage every day.

“He’ll watch TV or play with one of his videogames and he is satisfied with it,” Miller said.

Children should be allowed to use technology only when the parent knows that their child is mature enough to use it responsibly, he said.

“We can’t let our kids binge on technology,” he said. “As parents we must monitor their use until they are able to themselves.”

The Concordia research also concluded that the average age of social maturation has steadily increased. The average age of social maturity in 1990 was 15; in 2012 it was 17. The cited cause for the increase was an increase in protective parenting and the increase in personal electronics.

Digital communication originally was designed to break long-standing communication barriers, but in practice it seems to have done the opposite, Saunders said.

“People are now able to stay in touch with who they want to talk to,” he said. “They are never forced to talk to new people.”

Instances of social hindrance caused by digital devices can be seen as early as elementary school, said Karen O’Hara, who teaches fourth grade in Harrison, Ark.

Her students haven’t formed bonds, because of smartphone use during recess and other breaks O’Hara said.

“Many of the students in my class have smartphones that their parents give them,” she said. “The school let them have phones during breaks last year so they can call their parents, but it seems that they just play games.”

The rule change that allowed students to use cellphones during breaks was originally designed to give students a chance to call working parents to arrange transportation and events. However, several teachers want to change the system because they feel the rule is being abused, O’Hara said.

“My kids are usually very social but now that they have their own little world it feels like they don’t talk to each other,” she said.

Children who are allowed to engage in this type of isolated behavior are having their potential curbed, Cavell said.

“The funny thing is that no matter how technologically advanced we get, the fundamentals of success are still tied to human interaction,” he said. “The people who are the most successful are the ones who go and meet people, the ones who get their hands dirty.”

The incorporation of technology into a child’s life should be gradual, he said. Younger children especially will begin to associate technology as a form of social escape, even if they can’t comprehend the actual intent.

“These are innovations that could aid parents and teachers, but they are unfortunately being used as an easy way out,” he said. “It is holding back the potential of the children and the technology.”