I knew I needed to play with my eight year old, but I also was having an important text conversation with a coworker on a subject that needed to be ironed out.
“Mommy,” she said. “Do you want to play Frozen?” We’d gotten a “chutes and ladders” type game featuring Olaf, Anna, and Elsa that requires precisely zero brain cells to play. I decided to do both: the game with my child and the text conversation. Win/win. Right? (What was the issue that was so pressing at work? I can’t quite remember. But it seemed important at the time.)
Then, I read about this new study that found parents’ cell phone usage can lead to depression and anxiety in children. Scientists raised baby rats in two different groups. They had the right temperature, enough food, and with the same amount of time with their mothers. In one group, the researchers didn’t provide enough material for nesting, which meant the mothers were frequently looking around trying to improve their environment for their kids. In other words, their mothers were distracted and their attention was unreliable.
Even though the baby rats spent as much time with their mothers, the group that experienced that unreliable attention from their mothers did not develop properly.
“We were stunned,” Dr. Tallie Baram, professor of pediatrics and anatomy-neurobiology at University of California, said. “We had to go back and look at what the heck we had done. What was it in the development of these baby rats, what aberrant signals did they get?”
What differed among the rats growing up in the modified environments was the type of attention they received from their mothers. Their mothers, stressed by the lack of an adequate environment to raise their young, tended to be more unpredictable than mothers living in the proper environment. For example, rather than repeating grooming acts or postures that reassured their offspring, or indicated to them that it was time to eat or play with their peers, these mothers might be distracted into nervously looking around the cages to improve their surroundings.
But how does that relate to human parenting?
Few things require more hands-on attention than a young child. And there’s little that’s more distracting than the constant bleeping of our cells phones. When these two things compete for our attention, the results can be sobering. In a new animal-based study published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, scientists show that distracted parental attention may sometimes have detrimental effects on babies’ development, especially their ability to process pleasure.
“What we are proposing is that there is a sensitive period in which maternal care needs to provide consistent patterns and sequences of behavior so the baby’s brain can perceive them to develop normally emotionally. The predictability of maternal care seems to engage the pleasure system, and the pleasure system needs to be engaged so the neurons involved will fire together and then will wire together,” [Dr. Tallie Baram] says.
This just confirms what we all probably know already. Perhaps that latest e-mail from work or latest post on Instagram or latest viral video isn’t the most important thing of the moment. Maybe that smiling face sitting in the playpen looking up at us with a smile on his face and a toy in his hand needs our undivided attention.
Parenting in the age of smart phones and 4G networks can be very challenging, but this new research suggests we may want to slow down and think twice before we whip out our cell phones next time we are playing with our kids.