Smartphone Strange Situation

The Study Defined

Cell phones are a pervasive mode of communication, indispensable to professional and social life. Professional and family life is often not entirely inseparable and it is commonly recognized that the presence of cell phones may at times muddle the two. Our study is focused on examining the immediate influence and effects of parents’ cell phone usage on their young children (12-24 months). Through a text-based distraction during free play in a therapeutic nursery setting, we will observe how both members of dyads respond to this distraction.

We will observe dyads’ interactions before, during, and after the distraction, focusing on individual differences between parents, who respond to and manage two competing demands, and children, whose unique temperament will determine a unique reaction.

We believe our findings will shed light on a common phenomenon and expand upon literature on child development in the digital age, leading to practical implications for parents and practitioners.

Change in Pilot Design

From the onset of our pilot study, our general research goal has remained the same — to observe how the parent navigates the competing needs to interact with the child and to respond to the phone, and to observe the child’s behavior in regards to the parent’s reaction to the distraction. Our specific hypotheses are crafted around this general frame of reference.

However, there has been a small but crucial change in the structure of the study. In our first pilot structure, diads would engage in free play before we sent them a text message distraction (we pretended to have forgotten to request certain demographic information). Parents were suggested to keep their phones on for safety reasons, but had no reason to expect a text from us. After the observation portion of the study, we debriefed the parent and asked follow up questions. This study design suggested a number of things.

We felt uncomfortable that in a sense we were tricking the parent in answering the phone. We also felt that there was an implicit “correct” way to conduct the free-play and that parents who answered their phones “failed.” We were also confronted with the idea that, due to the setting, parents might pay more attention to play and turn their phones off.

In our current model, parents are told they need their phones to be on so that they can complete a memory task. This puts parents on a more equal playing ground — it simulates a time in real life when a parent is expecting a text or email and is also engaged playing with the child. This new model also solved our problem with deception — we went from deceiving the parent into answering the phone to simply deceiving the parent about the motivation behind sending them text messages.

There is also a real-life, conceptual advantage to structuring the study in the way we are now. As I mentioned earlier, in the first study, parents may have felt that they did wrong in the eyes of the observers by answering the text message. Indeed during the follow up interview after free play, many parents voiced a sense of guilt on the subject of how cell phones affect their parenting. In restructuring the study model, we approach the subject at a slightly different angle. In seeing the cell phone distraction as an unavoidable, we isolate the way in which the distraction is dealt with. I hope this small gesture will reflect a shift in viewing the distraction presented by the cell phone in less of a dichotomous way, thus opening our view to a larger spectrum of interpretation of our cell phone related behavior so we can deal with it accordingly. Dealing with smartphone distraction accordingly means being aware of the nuances of our conduct.

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