The XX Factor

Ammunition for People Who Judge Parents for Looking at Their Phones Instead of Their Kids

Kids playing while their parents read Twitter.

Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images

As a blissfully childless person, I was unaware that—along with having your own bed (and the sex life to go with it), diapers, and bottle-feeding—another modern convenience parents are supposed to give up is the use of the smartphone. As David Plotz chronicled for Slate back in 2012, taking your eyes off your precious offspring to read emails or crush some candies is considered by some to be such a parental foul that there’s an entire Tumblr dedicated to shaming people over it. How, after all, will your children learn that they are the center of the universe if they can’t hold a parent’s attention captive at all times?

But now the finger-wagging phone haters have some real ammunition: Craig Palsson, an economics graduate student at Yale, has published a paper arguing that the expansion of smartphone services is behind the rise in emergency room visits for small children. ER injuries for kids under 5 increased about 10 percent between 2005 and 2012. Palsson’s research shows that visits to the ER rose in individual communities only after they got the 3G network and that the injuries that increased were mostly from activities, both in and out of the house, where parents were supervising, instead of teachers or coaches.  

Since policing mothers about the well-being of children is the country’s second favorite sport, after watching men bash concussions into one another, expect a lot of coverage of this study. But I would offer a word of caution about making too much of it. As Palsson himself writes, “Indeed, only 6.4 out of every 1,000 parents of children 5 and under who use a smartphone experience an injury.” In contrast, “the injury rate for cars is about 10.6 per 1,000 drivers.” As an economist, he is more interested in weighing the risks of iPhone use against the rewards, not saying that the risk is unacceptable. 

And those rewards cannot be discounted. While there’s a lot of pressure on parents to act like every moment with baby is bliss, a lot of the work of raising kids is boring, I’ve heard. Having a small device in your pocket to make the time pass faster is nothing to be ashamed of. And, if you’re struggling with work-life balance, it can also help you be around for your child while also keeping up with work emails or Twitter or texting friends to maintain the social life that you are definitely allowed to have. The takeaway from this study shouldn’t be that parents of small children must give up their phones (which is totally unrealistic anyway), but that they should just be mindful about looking up from them more frequently. Most of those iPhone games let you pause between turns, anyway.