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Over the last several years, many researchers in early childhood
education have focused on the amount of screen time that children
receive each day and how it may affect their learning or development.
But, what about the amount of time that a parent or caregiver spends in
front of a screen while playing with a child? How might a parent’s
distraction by a cell phone affect a child’s learning?
Those are the questions explored in a new study by University of
Delaware alumna alumna Caroline Gaudreau (PhD. in education) of the
University of Chicago, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek of Temple University and
Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Unidel H. Rodney Sharp Chair and professor
in the School of Education and the Departments of Psychological and Brain Sciences and Linguistics and Cognitive Science.
The study, titled “What’s in a Distraction? The Effect of Parental Cell
Phone Use on Parents’ and Children’s Question-Asking,” has been
published in Developmental Psychology.
In a study with 57 preschoolers, Golinkoff and her coauthors found
that children’s and parents’ interactions changed significantly when
parents were engaged in completing a survey using a cell phone. Compared
to a group of participants without a survey, these children and their
parents asked fewer questions of each other during playtime.
Since question-asking behavior is a critical part of a child’s
learning, this study offers insight into how parental cell phone use may
affect their child’s development.
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Unidel H. Rodney Sharp Chair and
Professor, plays with a child in her Child’s Play, Learning and
Development Lab at the University of Delaware.
Toddlers and preschoolers ask questions to learn about the world
around them, exploring topics such as the natural world, tools,
machinery and more complicated concepts like cause and effect. As
research has shown, question-asking allows children to direct their own
learning, identify the information they seek and remain engaged with the
toy, story or lesson at hand. During preschool, children also learn how
to ask questions to solve problems or seek help.
Similarly, parents often use questions as a teaching tool,
encouraging their children to explore or to check on their understanding
of a new concept. In fact, parents’ questions play an important role in
their children’s learning even during their children’s infancy. For
example, researchers have studied parents' interactions with their
10-month-old children while reading. They found a link between how often
these parents asked questions and their children's later language
development. As children grow, parents’ questions also serve as a model
for information-seeking behavior and how to ask effective questions.
“Asking and answering kids’ questions is very important for their learning,” said Golinkoff, who also serves as the director of UD’s Child’s Play, Learning and Development Lab. “We know that parents who ask more questions and give fewer ‘orders’ have kids with better language development.”
Given the central importance of asking questions in a child’s
development, Golinkoff and her research team purposely designed a
playful activity that would encourage the children in the study to ask
their parents questions. The research team designed a colorful cardboard
box with 10 hidden functions, such as opening a flap secured with
Velcro to reveal a mirror, turning on a concealed flashlight and
spinning a mini Wiffle ball on a pipe cleaner. This novel toy sparked
the children’s curiosity and motivated them to ask for help from their
The researchers then divided the participants into three groups to
study the effect that cell phone use might have on the participants’
question-asking behavior. While their children played with the box, the
parents in the first group were asked to complete a survey on reading
development using a cell phone. The parents in the second group were
asked to complete the same survey on paper, and the parents in the third
group did not receive a survey to complete.
As they hypothesized, Golinkoff and her team found that using a cell
phone was associated with the parents and their children asking fewer
questions. While the parents and children with a paper survey interacted
less than those without a survey, children and parents in this group
still asked more questions of each other than the group with the cell
phones. Parents and children without a survey asked the most questions
of each other while the children engaged in the hidden box activity.
Acknowledging that parents and caregivers must always grapple with
distractions—whether it’s a paper survey, a knock at the door or the
demands of another sibling—Golinkoff and her research team encourage
parents to be mindful of the time they spend in front of a screen when
playing with their children.
The presence of a cell phone or tablet may lead the parent to
interact less with the child, and it may communicate to the child that
the parent is less available for help or support. By contrast, a playful
activity without the competing presence of a digital screen may promote
the rich question-asking that advances children’s language development
and learning in general.
“Our cell phones are like candy to us,” Golinkoff said. “But it would
be great if we could be mindful of the fact that using our cell phones
when we are interacting with our kids may shortcut their talk with us,
talk that they use to learn from us.”
Article by Jessica HendersonPublished April 07, 2022