Cell Phones Sidetrack Parent-Child Interactions

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.

Keywords: language development, word learning, parent-child interactions, interruptions

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 mean- ingful input (Tamis-LeMonda, Kuchirko, & Song, 2014). To- gether, parent-toddler dyads establish shared referents, which fa- cilitate the word-to-world mapping process. By age 2, children are sensitive to the social input that adult speakers offer. At around this time, children’s word learning strategies move from relying more on perceptual cues to realizing the importance of cues such as eye gaze and pointing in determining word-to-world reference (Hol- lich, Hirsh-Pasek, & Golinkoff, 2000; Yurovsky & Frank, 2015). Thus, studying 2-year-olds who are attuned to social information offers a prime test of the consequences for word learning when dyadic exchanges are disrupted.

Word learning occurs in the nexus of social interaction (Tamis- LeMonda et al., 2014; Tomasello, 2003). Longitudinal data re-

vealed that the fluency and connectedness of parent-child interac- tions at 24 months of age predicted children’s language outcomes a year later (Hirsh-Pasek et al., 2015). Bloom and Tinker’s (2001) principle of relevance suggests that word learning works best when caregivers respond in a temporally contingent manner and expand and elaborate upon children’s contributions (Dieterich, Assel, Swank, Smith, & Landry, 2006; Dunham, Dunham, & Curwin, 1993; Goldstein & Schwade, 2009; McGillion et al., 2013; Page, Wilhem, Gamble, & Card, 2010). By contrasting 2-year-olds’ word learning following live, Skype, or prerecorded video training sessions, Roseberry, Hirsh-Pasek, and Golinkoff (2014) isolated social contingency as a mechanism that underpins toddlers’ acquisition of novel verbs. The Skype condition bridged the live and prerecorded video conditions, preserving the social contingency (as in the live condition) but presented the content through screen media (mirroring the prerecorded condition). Chil- dren’s performance following Skype training was indistinguish- able from those in the live condition, suggesting a powerful role for social contingency during word learning interactions. In this developmental epoch of young toddlerhood (i.e., 18 months to 3 years), meaningful and temporally contingent interactions may be particularly salient, signaling intentionality and pedagogical rele- vance.

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, 2011). In the classic Still-Face studies (for a review, see Mesman, van Ijzendoorn, & Bakersman-Kranenburg, 2009), caregivers be- gin by interacting naturally with their infants but become suddenly unresponsive for a short period. The session ends with a reunion phase during which caregivers reengage with their babies. Infants as young as 2 months detect these changes in caregivers’ behavior (Bigelow & Power, 2014). Developmentally, infants’ sensitivity to the social rhythm of back-and-forth exchanges manifests as an appreciation for shared goals in toddlerhood. For example, when a

This article was published Online First June 26, 2017. Jessa Reed, Department of Psychology, Temple University; Kathy

Hirsh-Pasek, Department of Psychology, Temple University, and Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution; Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, School of Education, University of Delaware.

Jessa Reed is now at the Department of Otolaryngology – Head & Neck Surgery, The Ohio State University.

We thank the families who participated and Sarah Roseberry for sharing her video stimuli.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Jessa Reed, 915 Olentangy River Road, Suite 4000, Columbus, OH 43212. E-mail: Jessica.Reed2@osumc.edu

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Developmental Psychology © 2017 American Psychological Association 2017, Vol. 53, No. 8, 1428–1436 0012-1649/17/$12.00 http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/dev0000292


child and experimenter play a game together and the experimenter unexpectedly stops participating, preschoolers will attempt to re- engage with their partners to complete the joint activity (Gráfen- hain, Behne, Carpenter, & Tomasello, 2009; Warneken, Gráfen- hain, & Tomasello, 2012).

The current study builds on past work by asking whether 2-year- olds are sensitive to disruptions within the dynamic flow of a word-learning task. Some research suggests that this will be the case. For example, preschoolers in Breazeal et al.’s (2016) study interacted with two robots that differed in their degree of contin- gent responsiveness. When asked by an experimenter to name an unfamiliar object, children turned more often to the responsive robot for help. Likewise, mothers with depressive or anxious symptoms provide children with atypical temporal contingency patterns (Beebe et al., 2008, 2011). These children are at a higher risk for language delays (Sohr-Preston & Scaramella, 2006). In- terruptions offer a test of social contingency by experimentally manipulating the back-and-forth exchanges of parents and chil- dren. Given that the social nature of language development occurs within the dyad (Tomasello, 2008), the present study examines this question within the dyadic flow of a conversation. Although this line of inquiry has its roots in the distraction literature, the exper- imental manipulations used in previous studies disrupted individ- ual children rather than dyadic interactions (Dixon et al., 2012; Newman, 2011; Wyss, Kannass, & Haden, 2012). For example, Dixon and Salley (2010) utilized interruptions in their investiga- tion of environmental distractions during a novel word learning task and found that word learning was impaired relative to baseline performance. The current study builds upon this foundation. By interrupting the caregiver, the dyad is confronted with a break and the unfolding interaction is momentarily paused. We hypothesized that 2-year-olds would notice the disruption and that it would impact word learning—even if the words were offered to children many times. Alternatively, no difference in word learning may emerge because the two teaching periods will not differ in total teaching time—60 s—allowing mothers to offer the novel words with sufficient frequency to overcome the interruption. Using Roseberry, Hirsh-Pasek, and Golinkoff’s (2014) stimuli, we pitted these two hypotheses against one another.



Forty-four mothers (Mage � 35.26 years, age range: 29.53 – 47.10 years; 19 mothers did not report their age) and their 2-year old typically developing children (22 females; Mage � 27.05 months, SD � 2.89) participated. Participants were recruited from a purchased list of area births. Drawn from suburban communities surrounding Philadelphia, PA, the sample was primarily Caucasian (9.10% of families self-identified as Hispanic, Pacific Islander, African American, or multiethnic). Two additional children did not complete the experiment because of fussiness; 3 were excluded because of parental reports of children’s hearing or language delays. Four sessions encountered a technical error (e.g., camera failed to record or cell phone failed to connect). Data from seven children were excluded because mothers did not answer an incom- ing call, failing to follow protocol.

Design and Variables

This study used a within-subjects design to contrast word learn- ing across an interrupted and uninterrupted (control) teaching period. Mothers taught two novel words to their children, one at a time, counterbalanced for order of presentation. Random assign- ment determined whether the first or second teaching period would be interrupted by a brief (30 second) phone call with the experi- menter (see Figure 1). A measure of parents’ mobile technology use was collected; mothers self-reported the average number of calls and texts they received and sent each day. A total cell phone use variable was calculated as the sum of the number of calls and texts sent and received…

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