The baby sat on her mom's lap, cooing and smiling as they played with each other. Until, that is, mom got a phone call, then started to text. Despite the baby's best efforts to woo her mom back, mom had disengaged, although the baby had become agitated and upset.
Eventually, the baby stuck her hand in her mouth and gazed listlessly at the overhead lights, according to Neal Halfon, a physician who directs the UCLA Center for Healthier Children, Families and Communities and is a professor of pediatrics.
In a guest column in the New Jersey Star-Ledger, Halfon pointed to a recent issue of Brookings and Princeton's "The Future of Children," which found an inexplicable increase in childhood developmental disabilities and mental health issues.
Then he pondered whether texting while parenting has a bad effect on babies' developing brains. Is it possible, he asked, whether reasons for an increase in childhood developmental disability rates are "hiding in plain sight," prompted by a technological disconnect that hinders the connection between plugged-in parents and their offspring.
To illustrate his discussion of what Halfon's article called "parental benign neglect," he told another story, this one based on observation of an 18-month-old and his young parents.
"Their son seemed happy, active and engaged, clearly enjoying time and pizza with his parents, both professionals. At the end of dinner, Mom got up to run an errand, handing over care to Dad."
Dad, though, started reading phone messages while the toddler struggled to get his attention by throwing bits of pizza crust. Then the dad re-engaged, facing his child and playing with him. Soon, though, he substituted watching a video on his phone with the toddler until his wife returned.
In both cases, Halfon observed a dimming of the child's internal light, a lessening of the connection between parent and child.
Experts have theorized a lot of things might be to blame for the increase in developmental disabilities, from an explosion of new chemicals in the environment to "toxic" stresses, he said, adding that most research indicates "childhood development is more commonly influenced by the ordinary and the mundane."
"Was the infant's experience of her mother's Jekyl and Hyde transformation an anomaly or a regular part of life? Were these the origins of an anxiety disorder for the little girl and ADHD for the little boy?" Halfon asked.
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