Fear-mongering of smart phones based on stressed-out rats is just silly

iStock_000025319225_SmallThe iPhone and related devices are changing our world in countless ways. Are they also changing our children’s brains? Researchers are scrambling to keep up with the possible implications for child development.

Much of this research is preliminary and in some cases relies on animals. And there are notable pitfalls when journalists cover emerging research in animals and try to apply the results to humans. One such story we recently came across from TIME Magazine makes just such a misstep. The subheading of the story reads, “New research shows how cell phone distraction can deprive babies’ developing brains of crucial developmental signals.” Yet, read a little further and you discover the study was conducted in rats. As far as we know, rats aren’t waiting in line for the iphone 6 just yet.

The research, conducted at the University of California, Irvine, used a rat model to study how disrupted attention from mothers affected newborn rats’ development. The study involved placing some rats in cages without sufficient nesting material causing the mothers to scramble around looking for more, thus detracting from the attention they gave their pups. The researchers found that those pups raised in the environment without enough nesting material showed less pleasure when they got older (as measured by their intake of sugar solution and play time with their peers). Both the pups in the normal and modified environment spent the same amount of time with their mothers, so the researchers concluded it must have been the quality of the interaction with their mothers that made them turn out differently.

The TIME article quotes the lead author, Dr. Tallie Baram, saying that predictability helps the emotional system to develop, and follows her quote with a giant leap to the implications for humans. “That means that for people, there might be a similar critical time during which babies need to have a mom and dad’s reliable and consistent attention in order to form proper emotional processes.” As we’ve pointed out repeatedly at HealthNewsReview.org, rats are not people. To make the leap from the emotional development of rats to the emotional development of people is quite a stretch given the cognitive and emotional capacities of each species.

The story goes on to outline a specific hypothetical scenario, one in which a mother does not interact with her child because she is distracted by her smart phone. “If mom is distracted by a call or a message alert, and turns to the cell phone instead, then this pattern [of a predictable response] gets broken and the crucial learning that should occur might not happen. Other studies have shown that such poor development of the pleasure system could contribute to mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.” This is a scenario that undoubtedly many mothers–and parents– have experienced and worried about. The thought of turning away from your child for a second when they hold up a toy to look at your phone sets the stage for the fear-mongering tone of this article. One in which the scenario concludes with the child being irreparably emotionally damaged.

How a rat looking for nesting material can be compared to a human mother using her cell phone is baffling. This article begs several important questions. Does distracted parenting really have anything to do with cell phones? What if the parent is distracted by other children, or doing laundry, or cooking? Does this produce the same hypothetical depression and anxiety in developing babies’ minds? Is there a certain ratio of looking away from one’s children that is acceptable? Do rats mature emotionally in the same way as human babies?  Well, of course, the answer is probably a resounding “no” to at least some of these questions.

The leap from rats looking for straw to moms listening to Siri first was related to a news release from UC Irvine headlined,  “Put the cellphone away! Fragmented baby care can affect brain development.”  And that framing was also embraced by a number of other news outlets and blogs that covered the research. Examples:

Meanwhile, kudos to the Daily Beast for rejecting this framing out of hand with their story from its Bad Science column, “Cellphones Won’t Ruin Your Parenting.”

Baram and her colleagues are planning on studying human babies next to find out more. Their research will focus on mother-child interactions and brain development, which should provide more directly relevant evidence. The thrust of this batch of stories, “cell-phone distracted parenting,” represents a big, big, leap from what this study actually measured. Neither the researchers nor the journalists covering the story should have been so quick to jump to conclusions.

Carolina Branson, PhD is an associate editor with HealthNewsReview.org

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Comments (1)

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Dan Walter

January 25, 2016 at 7:06 am

“Fear-mongering of smart phones based on stressed-out rats is just silly.”
All the same, lawyers should use caution.