Lack of social interaction is breeding deprived kids, Monash University study shows

Digital distractions: A new university study led by a Monash researcher states that parents' use of mobile phones is affecting children's social skills. Picture: Louise Kennerley. vicki st
Digital distractions: A new university study led by a Monash researcher states that parents' use of mobile phones is affecting children's social skills. Picture: Louise Kennerley. vicki st

A university study that is examining the behaviours of a group of parents shows that children are missing out on vital communication skills, crucial to the development of their ability to interact socially.

Monash University has put parents under the microscope as part of the new research that observes how mobile phone use can affect a child’s response and reactions.

It shows that most of the group’s participants fail to recognise how much time they spent glued to their mobile devices in public places.

Master of Educational and Developmental Psychology, Carrie Ewin, is conducting a study of 70 parents using mobile phones and electronic tablets in the company of their children, at food courts and play areas in shopping centres.

This involved detailed notes being taken by an observer sitting close to the parents and their children. Parents were closely watched to identify how they used their devices while caring for their children. 

The way that children reacted when their parents used a mobile phone and how this affected their interactions was also noted. This included the tapping, swiping and speaking habits of parents, plus their children’s behaviour, body language and conversation.

The PhD candicate says children are in danger of losing their primary caregivers to mobile devices, which can have long-term consequences for parent-child interactions.

“The reason for conducting an observational study was to help understand how parents use mobile devices and how kids respond, in real every day moments,” she said.

“Very little research has investigated this issue in Australia and mobile devices are now a staple in our lives so it’s important that we understand how they affect parent-child relationships.

“Many parents honestly have no idea how much time they spend on their phones when their children are with them.”

Ms Ewin is due to complete her study in 2020, but early findings show that of the child-caregiver groups observed, nearly 82 per cent included a caregiver who used a mobile device for more than 10 minutes. 

One was observed spending nearly two hours absorbed in their mobile device.

Some parents also missed signs of danger, such as their children falling or wandering off, and many parents offered very little conversation or engagement.

“One parent was so engrossed in their device – for more than 30 minutes – that they didn’t notice their son hitting play equipment or crawling over furniture,” Ms Ewin said.

“Another caregiver didn’t see their baby standing up and falling out of a pram. A child was observed sitting silently and fiddling with a strap, without sharing any conversation, laughter or smiles, for 20 minutes until she tried to get her father’s attention by giving him a hug. Even then, the parent still didn’t look up.”

The researcher says a surprising observation was that a vast majority of children recognised their parents were ‘busy’, yet chose to not play with or use a mobile device during the observed period. Instead, they opted to play with their siblings or occupied themselves in another way.

However, she noted that some children attracted attention through provocative behaviours – including climbing over furniture, raising voices, calling out and aggravating siblings.  

“There has been a lot of commentary about parents losing connection to their children as mobile devices take hold of their lives,” Ms Ewin said.

“This study reveals that parents struggle to engage with their children when they have a mobile device and often model the absorbed and distracted behaviour that children are criticised for.”

She says the research calls on parents to balance their device use and actively engage with their children during everyday moments like eating and playing.

“High levels of parental absorption with mobile devices may significantly impact parental responsivity, non-verbal gestures and shared language,” she said.

“Parent-child language is essential for the formation of children’s early language skills and also has many other developmental benefits such as bonding and learning to regulate emotions.”