Learning on Hold: Cell Phones Sidetrack Parent-Child Interactions

Jessa Reed
Temple University

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek
Temple University and The Brookings Institution

Roberta Michnick Golinkoff
University of Delaware

Although research suggests that responsive interactions are imperative for language development, the
advent of mobile technology means that parent-child exchanges are often fraught with unpredictable
interruptions. Less clear is how these momentary breaks in responsiveness affect word learning. In this
within-subjects design, 38 mothers taught their 2-year-olds (M  27.15 months) 2 novel words, 1 at a
time. One teaching period was interrupted by a cell phone call. Children learned the word when the
teaching was not interrupted, but not when it was interrupted. Critically, the number of times each target
word was spoken did not differ by condition. This finding supports the literature on responsiveness,
offering experimental evidence that interruptions in social interactions can affect learning outcomes.


We are engaged in a great natural experiment. With the click of
a button we talk, text, and share photos. These possibilities lead not
only to unprecedented connectivity but also to overwhelming
distraction. Despite the sense that we can jointly attend to devices
and tasks at hand, laboratory studies suggest otherwise. Only 2%
of us multitask without any attentional deficits (Watson & Strayer,
2010). The ubiquitous use of mobile technology also disrupts
social rhythms in face-to-face interactions (Radesky et al., 2014).
In language development, for example, young children rely on
sensitive and responsive caregivers who offer prompt and meaningful
input (Tamis-LeMonda, Kuchirko, & Song, 2014).

Infants are sensitive not only to caregiver responsiveness that is
contingent on their behavior, but also to disruptions in the flow of
natural interactions (Bigelow & Best, 2013; Henning & Striano,

The ubiquitous use of mobile communication makes interruptions an everyday occurrence.

Mobile technology randomly interrupts us, without regard
for whether individuals are idly standing in line or engaged in a
conversation with their 3-year-old about naptime. Consequently,
the nature of parent-child interactions is constantly challenged, as
dyads navigate these incoming interruptions. Here, we have an
ecologically valid example of environments in which meaningful
and temporally contingent interactions are unpredictably disrupted.

Radesky et al. (2014) reported that of 55 families observed during
mealtime with their young child, fully 40 shared the table with
their cell phone. If contingent interactions are central to word
learning then these data are potentially devastating. Further, it is
important not only to demonstrate that word learning is fostered by
meaningful and temporally contingent conditions, but also the
converse: that word learning is disrupted when these conditions are
not available.

The findings of this study are the first to complement
prior research by suggesting that meaningful and temporally contingent
interactions are necessary for word learning and that when
they are absent, word learning suffers.

Our findings suggest that not only do children notice
interruptions during face-to-face interactions with their parents,
but also that these interruptions have cognitive consequences, at
least for young word learners. They sidetrack language learning.

Link to the study: Learning-on-Hold

Parent distraction can hinder babies’ language skills: Study indicates cell phones interrupt critical one-on-one interaction that develops vocabulary.

Though parents are often concerned about the effects of too much screen time on young children, it may be the adults who need to set aside their devices.

Recent research by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a psychology professor at Temple University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, reveals the detrimental effects of parent screen time on their children’s language development. Babies rely on continuous one-on-one interaction to learn words, and interruptions that distract parents and caregivers cut off what Hirsh-Pasek calls the “conversational duet” that grows language skills.

“When babies are 8 weeks old, they already understand they can have a conversation with you,” Hirsh-Pasek said. “They look at you and make a sound, you make it back and repeat. And while it starts with just sounds, it develops, and it happens through human interaction only.”

In the study, “Learning on hold: Cell phones sidetrack parent-child interactions,” parents were asked to teach their 2-year-old two words they knew the children could learn. But between the two words, the parent received a phone call, cutting off the two-word sequence. Outcomes revealed that the interruption barred the toddler from learning the second word.

And it isn’t just about cell phones. It’s one more piece of science illustrating that young children learn language through a social behavior.

It may seem obvious that interruptions get in the way of conversation, but many parents don’t realize just how much babies rely on them for continuous interaction, regardless of how young they are, Hirsh-Pasek said.

Language doesn’t just unfold, Hirsh-Pasek explained. The way it really happens is being in an environment of adults involved in conversation. The more exposure, the more language your child will learn. When conversation is a back-and-forth of sounds and expressions, early learning is optimized, even with video chats on services like FaceTime, for instance.

Not only do text and email alerts that parents turn to look at interrupt early language acquisition, they distract parents from baby’s cues.

“Look at what baby is looking at. Comment on it,” said Hirsh-Pasek. “The thing we don’t do these days is have quiet attentiveness without the beeps and the sounds. They need to not see us constantly turn away. They need our full attention.”

“Human interaction is just too important, and it’s just what we do best,” she said. “If we’re constantly interrupting the foundation of everything we learn, we’re depriving our children of their connection-building.” http://www.heraldtribune.com/news/20180325/parent-distraction-can-hinder-babies-language-skills

Learning on hold: Cell phones sidetrack parent-child interactions. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28650177



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