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Does Your Child Suffer From Cell-Phone Neglect?

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Health, Wellness, & Safety

Years ago, researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley found that there are vast differences in the sheer number of words young children hear every day. They found that in some families, preschoolers heard on average 600 words per hour. But in other families, preschoolers heard about 1200 words per hour while in a third group of families preschoolers heard over 2100 words per hour.

That’s a huge difference. It adds up to a difference of more than three million words by the time two-year-olds turn five. But the differences don’t end there. Hart and Risley found that children who heard fewer words had smaller vocabularies and knew fewer concepts. They were, in fact, less smart than other kids. A lot less smart.

This study was conducted before the cell phone era. But imagine if it were conducted today and the differences between families was not on parent education or household income but on how attentive parents are to their children and how attentive they are to their phones. The fact is, children who used to hear over 2100 words per hour probably hear many fewer these days. Most of the time their parents are busy, talking to someone else.

The key idea is that conversation matters only when it’s real and in-person. The talk that comes from the television or radio doesn’t count. The talk that is an overheard phone conversation doesn’t count. It’s important that children be talked with directly and listened to. In order for conversation to contribute to children’s vocabularies and intellectual development is has to be about what’s going on. So when parents are distracted by their phones the child loses out.

Modern moms and dads should be aware of the hazards their own distractions can pose. Here are some suggestions:

1. Turn OFF your phone when out and about with your child. Notice what’s going on around you and talk about it. Sing. Talk with other people you meet. Walk with another adult and talk with that person. All this conversation is real and it contributes to your child’s development.

2. Wrench your attention away from your phone when you are texting, surfing, and otherwise not engaged in a real-time conversation. The person you’re with is more important than someone or something you can check back with any time. If a text is of immediate importance, say, “I’ll be right with you!” and then DO get right back to the child and give him your undivided attention.

3. When you’re at home, uncouple yourself from the television, talk radio, the computer, and your phone. Yes, hanging around a two-year-old is boring when it’s not frantic. True, your child doesn’t need your full attention every minute she’s awake. But if you are uninterruptable for long periods of time, your child is missing out… and it’s easy to let long periods of time go by.

Our devices have insinuated themselves into the fabric of our lives and they threaten to derail children’s development. This is such an unexpected idea that one might discount it. Don’t.

Your child’s preschool years create the foundation for her future success. Hang up the phone and talk with the little person next to you.

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.