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Parental-Smartphone Use and its Long-Term Effects on Child Socio-Emotional Development
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  • Parental-Smartphone Use and its Long-Term Effects on Child Socio-Emotional Development

How does parental cellphone use affect their childrens' socio-emotional development?

Written by: Dawson Sutherland

Photo by August de Richelieu from Pexels

Early childhood is representative of one of the most critical developmental periods a child will experience. Between birth and the age of five, children are susceptible to many different factors that can have lifelong implications on their socioemotional development (1). Most importantly, young children are highly dependent on the responsiveness and sensitivity of their parental figures for sufficient social-emotional development (2, 3, 4). Ideally, parental figures that display responsiveness will be present to recognize and appropriately address their child's emotions, mental states, and behaviours (5). Essentially, responsiveness on behalf of the parents is vital in fostering sufficient socio-emotional development for their child(s).

However, distractions can reduce a parent’s responsiveness, with research starting to suspect that parental smartphone use could interfere with responsiveness. In turn, this reduction of responsiveness could pose a threat to a child’s long-term socio-emotional development. However, why has the scientific community classified smartphones as problematic for parental responsiveness and child socio-emotional development, not other forms of technology? Thankfully, pre-existing research lays out a clear and reasonable thought process that would lead to such suspicion.


The Smartphone Issue

Unlike televisions and computers, devices integrated into family households, smartphones have developed into multipurpose technological devices that are always on and consistently carried on one’s person (6). Along with smartphones always being on, they also emit visual, tactile, and acoustic signals for several smartphone-based functions (7). Whether it is for work, leisure, gaming, or streaming, the notifications provided by a smartphone can be intrusive, as they are developed to grab our attention. So, considering the above information, it becomes easy to understand why some researchers have begun investigating how smartphone use impacts parental responsiveness.

Even more problematic is how many parents, or future parents, own smartphones already. Based on survey work surrounding device ownership and usage, 88% of Canadians reported owning smartphones, with the highest ownership rate among child-rearing age groups (8, 9). Nonetheless, smartphone ownership does not necessarily guarantee a detriment to parental responsiveness. Nevertheless, substantial evidence supports that most smartphone parents could show decreased responsiveness to their children.


Pre-Existing Evidence

            In 2020, one study had expert observers measure maternal smartphone use while 89 mother-child dyads were in a playground setting (10). Expert observers measured maternal responsivity, how long mothers used their smartphones, and device-checking frequency. Of the 89 mothers observed in this study, nearly half (48%) were found to have used their phones while their child was within a playground setting. Furthermore, mothers were rated less responsive to their children when phone usage was more prolonged, independent of what mothers used the device for.

Similar to the previous findings, another observational study found parents to become quickly absorbed with their smartphones when in the presence of their child (11). In this study, 57 observations occurred in the USA, and 58 observations were conducted in Israel, with parent-child interactions occurring in playgrounds or public eateries. Observers in this study found parents dismissive of their children’s emotional distress and other advancements for attention while using their smartphones. Furthermore, observers not only found parents to become less responsive but also found parents to become agitated when their children’s bids for attention interrupted smartphone usage.

Considering these findings, it is worrisome to think of the longitudinal effects parental smartphone use could have on a child's socio-emotional development. However, as of now, little to no evidence is available on the long-term issues that parental smartphone usage may cause for a child's socio-emotional development.


Our Study

This brings us to one of the developing studies from the PROSIT lab. The primary motivation for this study is to assess if smartphone use can predict parental responsiveness and child socio-emotional development outcomes. With smartphone ownership and usage being so high amongst child-rearing age groups (12), the importance of research like our developing project should be recognized.

We plan to do this by measuring parental smartphone use among 150 parent dyads and comparing this with results gathered on parental responsiveness (i.e., surveys and in-person observations) and assessments of child socio-emotional development.

To understand how parental smartphone usage impacts child development, we also want to understand what motivations and functions underlie higher parental usage rates. Is high stress causing parents to use their smartphones more? Are parents using their smartphones for streaming media or social media? We intend to answer such questions to understand better the possible issues parental smartphone use can pose for children.


Summary Points

  1. Young developing children are dependent on the level of responsiveness displayed by their parents. Children with responsive parents are more likely to experience sufficient socioemotional development – emotion regulation, impulse control, etc.
  2. However, recent work in the scientific field has shown that smartphone devices could be detrimental to parental responsiveness and child socioemotional development.
  3. The current project aims to investigate this possible detriment through several measures, such as mobile sensing, self-report questionnaires, and in-person observations.


Please stay tuned for updates on the development of this study!



  1. Britto, P. R. et al. Nurturing care: promoting early childhood development. The Lancet 389, 91–102 (2017).


  1. Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E. & Wall, S. Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. (Lawrence Erlbaum, 1978).


  1. Ainsworth, M. S. Infant–mother attachment. Psychol. 34, 932–937 (1979).


  1. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education; Board on Children, Youth, and Families; Committee on Supporting the Parents of Young Children; Breiner H, Ford M, Gadsden VL, editors. Parenting Matters: Supporting Parents of Children Ages 0-8. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2016 Nov 21. 1, Introduction. Available from:


  1. Bornstein, M. H., Tamis-LeMonda, C. S., Hahn, C.-S. & Haynes, O. M. Maternal responsiveness to young children at three ages: Longitudinal analysis of a multidimensional, modular, and specific parenting construct. Psychol. 44, 867–874 (2008).


  1. Rainie, L. & Zickuhr, K. Americans’ Views on Mobile Etiquette. Pew Research Center (2015).


  1. Wilmer, H. H., Sherman, L. E., & Chein, J. M. (2017). Smartphones and cognition: A review of research exploring the links between mobile technology habits and cognitive functioning. Frontiers in Psychology8, 605.


  1. Statistics Canada. Smartphone use and smartphone habits by gender and age group. doi:10.25318/2210011501-ENG.


  1. Wike, R. et al. Social Media Seen as Mostly Good for Democracy Across Many Nations, But the U.S. is a Major Outlier. Pew Research Center (2022).


  1. Wolfers, L. N., Kitzmann, S., Sauer, S., & Sommer, N. (2020). Phone use while parenting: An observational study to assess the association of maternal sensitivity and smartphone use in a playground setting. Computers in Human Behavior102, 31-38.


  1. Elias, N., Lemish, D., Dalyot, S., & Floegel, D. (2021). “Where are you?” An observational exploration of parental technoference in public places in the US and Israel. Journal of Children and Media15(3), 376-388.


  1. Denecker, F., De Marez, L., Ponnet, K., & Abeele, M. V. (2023). Does parental smartphone use predict parents’ perceptions of family life? An examination of momentary associations between parental smartphone use, parental experiences of quality time, and parental perceptions of difficult child behaviour. Mobile Media & Communication11(3), 391-414.


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