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University of Basel

“Mommy, put your phone down!”

Text: Eva Mell

What effect does it have on a child’s development when its parents are permanently stuck on their smartphones. Psychologist Eva Unternährer is developing tips for healthy smartphone use in the family.

Eva Mell and her daughter
The author with her daughter in the laboratory, where Eva Unternährer examines the impact of parental smartphone use the on development of children. (Photo: University Psychiatric Clinics Basel)

"Mom-my-can-you-come-over-here?" With each syllable, I feel the insistent clap of a child's hand against my leg. "Hmm? Wait a second. I need to check something first." – "Just-come-now!" calls my six-year-old daughter. Clap-clap-clap. The impact of her hand is gentle enough that it is not causing me any pain but hard enough to suggest that it is indeed time to put away the smartphone.

What my child was experiencing is a classic case of "phubbing," a neologistic portmanteau of the words "phone" and "snubbing" that describes the inappropriate use of smartphones during social interactions. I was concentrating on my phone while my child was seeking interaction. And why did I do that? Because I was busy looking up exactly where I needed go with my child the next day.

One day later, my daughter and I arrive punctually at University Psychiatric Clinics (UPK) Basel to participate in a laboratory assessment run by Eva Unternährer. The psychologist is a senior researcher at the Child and Adolescent Research Department at UPK. Her current research project is entitled SMARTIES – Study on Mobile Device Attraction, Relationship Ties, Social Interactions, Emotion Regulation, and Stress. The study examines the impact of problematic smartphone use by parents on the socio-emotional development of children and the role such behavior plays in the parent-child relationship.

Addictive social media apps

To develop an understanding of what defines problematic smartphone use in the first place and identify the risk factors, Eva Unternährer first carried out a preliminary study for which she conducted an online survey of nearly 200 students in Switzerland between May and November of 2020. Her conclusion: "It depends on the individual case. If a person neglects other activities and social relationships because they are constantly drawn to their smartphone, and if it is difficult for them to resist the urge to check it, we can call that type of use problematic."

Eva Unternährer emphasizes that it may not be the device itself that triggers problematic use; but instead the types of activities the smartphone facilitates. "We discovered that use of social media apps is one of the activities that correlates most strongly with problematic use," says Eva Unternährer, explaining: "Social media apps are designed to encourage people to spend more time using the app than they'd originally planned."

It was long thought that passive users had a greater risk of suffering from the use of these apps. They would scroll through social media feeds and immediately compare themselves with others. Possible consequences were said to include stress, anxiety and negative impacts on self-esteem. "But even active users can experience stress because they want stay engaged in the conversation, post something new and share or like others' posts," says the researcher. Her study showed that mindfulness may protect users from problematic use behavior. Those who lack psychological stability and are less mindful are most at risk.

The results of the preliminary study offer Eva Unternährer a clue as to which parents run a particularly high risk of engaging in problematic smartphone use. "We want to confirm the results in the main study and use our findings to develop targeted measures for at-risk parents down the line," she says.

More time on the phone than with the child

Eva Unternährer began with an online survey of parents from around Switzerland, and she is currently conducting the laboratory assessment. Her study adds to the very small pool of studies on this topic that have been carried out to date, most of which were conducted in North America and Asia. The international research has already shown that children "whose parents were continuously distracted by their smartphones – children who experienced phubbing – had an increased risk for numerous behavioral problems," says Eva Unternährer.

But why is that, exactly? Eva explains that because they are concentrated on their smartphones, parents have fewer and shorter conversations with their children and spend less time interacting with them, for example. She notes that this is a serious issue with problematic use behavior because children require interaction with parents or other key caregivers for healthy emotional development.

One initial analysis of her online survey, she reports, shows that children who experience phubbing on a regular basis display more internalizing behaviors and therefore tend to be more withdrawn, anxious and insecure, for instance. According to Unternährer, the SMARTIES study is one of the few to include a laboratory assessment.

To get an impression of Unternährer's work for this article, I promptly booked an appointment together with my daughter. The laboratory is a playroom equipped with toy figures, building blocks, books, puzzles and much more. My daughter's eyes are lit up as we play together uninterrupted – and without phubbing – at the table in the center of the room.

She does not pay any attention to the large mirror on the wall. Behind that mirror sits one of the master’s students working on the project, observing us as we play and recording the parent-child interaction on video for later analysis. A few minutes later, she will be evaluating my six-year-old's socio-emotional development while I fill out a survey about my smartphone use and psychological health.

Involve children when using smartphones

At the end of the study, the research team plans to use the data they have collected to develop recommendations to help parents control their smartphone use.

Eva Unternährer can share one tip already: "Limiting content and usage time alone is not the most effective method." According to her, the better choice is: "If you're going to use your smartphone, use it together with your child. The activities need to be age-appropriate, and it's best to turn it into a social interaction." So, it seems I could have prevented that impatient tapping on my leg simply by plugging the UPK into my navigation app together with my daughter and explaining why I wanted to check it. That way she would have understood why I needed my smartphone in that situation.

The tips for parents will be published on a website once the study is concluded. Eva Unternährer does not plan to share her results on social media. After all, she says: "I want to get parents off their smartphones, not encourage even more use." She admits it is a dilemma, however. That is exactly where she would find the parents she most wants to reach out to.


More articles in the current issue of UNI NOVA.

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