Ever bring your kids to the park, unbundle them from strollers and let them frolic on the slide or monkey bars while you settle on a bench and check Facebook on your smartphone?
If you have, you are one of a growing club of parents. And if your child had an accident while you were occupied, welcome to one consequence of smartphones and parenting — distraction to the point of endangerment. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, non-fatal injuries to children under the age of five rose 12 percent between 2007 and 2010, after falling for much of the previous decade. And emergency-room doctors and researchers, looking for reasons for the uptick, are turning to the recent boom in smartphone ownership.
The number of Americans over 13 years-old who own a smartphone surged over 100 million in 2012 from just under 10 million five years ago, according to ComScore. There’s no definitive proof that a surge of smartphones are leading to parents’ growing distractions, and hence, the upswing of child accidents, but the parallels have theorists wondering. Regardless, a quick glance at parenting, child safety and other societal trends suggest smartphone guidelines may need to be seriously considered.
The Playground Can Be a Dangerous Place
Since the 1970s, advocates have pushed a slew of measures to improve child safety. Most parents today can remember a time when there weren’t car seats or safety-gates. Playgrounds now have woodchips — or in more affluent parks, rubberized flooring — credited with decreasing the incidence of accidents for children.
“It was something we were always fairly proud of,” Dr. Jeffrey Weiss, a pediatrician at Phoenix Children’s Hospital said to the WSJ. “The injuries were going down and down and down.” The recent uptick, he added, is “pretty striking.”
Skeptics say the increase in child-injury numbers may be a statistical blip, and kids are simply engaging in riskier behavior or a result of poorly maintained public spaces due to budget shortfalls. Can a device really distract a parent long enough for a child to do serious harm? Using a smartphone to catch up with a friend isn’t that bad, is it?
The Attention Deficit Devices Cause
People tend to under-report the amount of time they spend on their mobile devices, whether they are at the park, in the car or at home. Complicating matters, kids tend to engage in riskier behavior while parents are distracted. What parent can’t recall their toddler playing with the toilet paper roll during a call from a best friend?
However, as lawmakers begin to crack down on distracted driving, a similar shift may come to parenting. In cases of tragic accidents, information gathered from cell towers, security cameras and carriers can shed light on smartphone activity, often providing hard facts that contradict assumptions.
For example, police reconstructed a near-drowning at a hotel pool in Connecticut this summer after a two year-old slipped into the water. The caregiver wasn’t even aware, tapping away on her smartphone, according to security footage. Her account data revealed showed she was active on the device for three full minutes, until she realized what had happened, dove in and pulled him out.
The toddler fully recovered, but in the police report, the woman responsible for watching the boy claimed she only took her eyes off him for about 20 seconds. That disparity underscores a disconnect between the idea of “a second” and how much time has actually passed.
Gathering data on possible device-related information hasn’t been integrated in other channels as well. When doctors see a child who appears to have a broken arm, for example, they order X-rays and aren’t used to asking if the parent or caregiver was on a smartphone at the time of the injury.
Both doctors and police are focused on determining cases of neglect, but the nature of smartphone distractions hasn’t yet risen to that level of concern, and their novelty and possible connection to accidents is in its infancy. And, parents don’t typically don’t self-report distraction as a cause for accidents, either out of shame or an inability to calculate the extent to which their distraction put their child at risk.
Every day, devices distract us more than radio, conversation and other outside-the-home activities. For instance, last year, a California man almost walked into a 500-pound bear while he was on his smartphone. In addition, a woman in a shopping mall fell into a fountain while sending a text. And on a more serious note, a tourist boat collided with a barge and killed two people — all due to mobile device distraction.
In a 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center, nearly one-in-four adults who send text messages were so distracted by their devices that they physically bumped into an object or person. But beyond incidents like these, driving while distracted offers the strongest evidence that people on phones can endanger themselves — and the time it takes to refocus from a screen can be deadly.
The Distracted Driving Comparison
Distracted driving is a proven road hazard, and remedies to prevent it, especially extreme bans, are saving lives. Accidents dropped by nearly a quarter, according to a University of California Berkeley study, after the state imposed ban on texting while driving in 2009. Advocates say these numbers, and the lengthy period of time surveyed, highlight distracted driving leads accidents.
The success is silencing critics in nine other states that outlaw talking and driving, and 35 states that prohibit texting in the car. In fact, the rising accident rate, and surveys that back the success of bans, is putting pressure on lawmakers to take action to keep roads safe and change the way people think about smartphones.
Car companies are also considering measures to block reception while users are driving. Urged on by the U.S. Department of Transportation, some automakers are reviewing in-car perks like Wi-Fi, which may encourage distracted driving.
Distracted parenting bans would be impossible to uphold, not to mention infringe on personal freedoms, but the seriousness and frequency of the issue is growing. Just as drivers are over-confident about their distracted capabilities, research suggests, that same mentality extends to parents and caregivers who don’t realize how preoccupied they actually are.
The Case for a Connection Gets a Boost
The Consumer Product Safety Commission, which tracks injuries by products and announces safety recalls, reports injuries involving playground equipment for children under five jumped by nearly 20 percent from 2007 and 2010. In addition, accidents involving changing tables surge by more than 30 percent among children in the same age group after a five-year decline.
Child safety advocates continue to search for explanations, and the stronger the connection between accidents and devices, the greater the pressure to seek alternatives.
Smartphones draw us in with their small screens, comforting us that as long as we’re in the same room, the children will be okay. Parents aren’t impervious to distractions, and it’s ironic that parents, often considered master multi-taskers, are thrown off course when it comes to technology. They understand better than most the importance of multi-tasking — whether prepping a bottle while flipping through a newspaper, or bouncing a baby on a hip and keeping an eye on noodles boiling on the stove.
The unique challenges of smartphones are a growing concern. Technology is everywhere, and the solution may lie in how people perceive supervision. Ideas like the “Slow Tech” movement may have part of the answer as our lives slowly merge with our gadgets, often at the cost of families and children.
Increasingly, child-injury statistics add fuel to the fire, and push people to review how they approach technology. Parents — and others immersed in the mobile lifestyle — need to realign their deepest values with how they use gadgets, instead of being obsessed with the constant need to maintain the digital connection. The stakes — the safety of children — are the highest they can be in any debate. ♦