One of our studies looked at technoference in parent-infant interactions, and whether technoference might indirectly influence children’s vocabulary development. Technoference is a term for when screen technology distracts us from our interactions with people who are with us in person. In this study, were interested in whether mobile phone use might affect the way that parents interact with their infants even when parents aren’t using their phone. We investigated the associations between different forms of technoference (e.g. the number of audible notifications parents receive per hour, the number of times per hour they check their device, key markers of parent-child interactions (responsiveness, directiveness, scaffolding and coordinated joint attention), and infants’ vocabulary. We observed parents and infants playing together in the lab and rated their interactions on directiveness, scaffolding, responsiveness, and coordinated joint attention. Parents did not use their phones while this was happening. We also asked parents questions about their mobile phone use and some other questions about screen use in the family, and then we were able to see if parents’ mobile phone use was related to how they interact with their child. We found that parents who received more audible notifications on the phones were more directive, and then their children tended to have smaller vocabularies.

The unexpected nature of audible notifications may keep parents “on alert”, and this could be drawing on some of the parent’s cognitive resources on an ongoing basis, not just when their phone makes a noise. This idea is backed up by another study by Kushlev and colleagues in 2016 who found that people reported fewer symptoms of inattention/hyperactivity after a week of having audible notifications turned off compared to a week where they were turned on. So this state of heightened alertness might affect the way that parents interact with their child even when their phone is not being used, as they may be less able to tune into what the child is doing and it might be easier to give them instructions.

The most important finding was that directiveness mediated a relationship between audible notifications and vocabulary – this means that audible notifications were associated with higher levels of directiveness, which in turn was associated with lower vocabulary. This suggests if parents turn off audible notifications on their phones (or perhaps pick a time to check their phones that fits in with what they and their child are doing), then this may support infants’ vocabulary development.

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