No, your baby won’t be a drug addict if you use your cell phone too much.
UCI needs to fire someone in their News department. A recent announcement by the University of California at Irvine (sister college to my Alma Mater) ran with the headline “Put the cellphone away! Fragmented baby care can affect brain development”. It’s since been shared on social media for the last few days with comments indicating that mothers who use cell phones or other electronic devices heavily will lead their children to become maladapted drug addicts.
But the problem is, as is often the case in Science Journalism, that’s not what the study says.
It’s often the case that news outlets either misinterpret or flat out misrepresent the results of a scientific study, but I tend to hold the University’s Publicity department to a higher standard. This time, however, the university failed miserably.
The first paragraph reads:
Mothers, put down your smartphones when caring for your babies! That’s the message from University of California, Irvine researchers, who have found that fragmented and chaotic maternal care can disrupt proper brain development, which can lead to emotional disorders later in life.
Followed by this (emphasis mine):
While the study was conducted with rodents, its findings imply that when mothers are nurturing their infants, numerous everyday interruptions – even those as seemingly harmless as phone calls and text messages – can have a long-lasting impact.
This is what we call burying the lead.
It’s not that I doubt frequent interruptions while caring for a child may lead to certain types of maladaptive behavior in adolescence, it’s that the study does not have the statistical power to infer this. Let me explain.
You can read the original study here. I have to give kudos to the authors in making the study open source.
Let’s break this study down a bit:
The study involved rats (not, as I feel I should make clear, humans). Two groups of rats were studied, those placed in normal cages and those placed in impoverished cages. There’s a great deal of research on developmental psychology using rats because, for what I hope are obvious reasons, you can’t ethically assign children to grow up in impoverished situations.
This study measured, among other factors, nurturing behavior in mothers, including licking, grooming, etc. After the experimental period the rats in the experimental group were transferred to typical cages and, as the study states:
maternal behavior normalized within hours.
After this the rats were assessed and their peer-play (how often they played with their peers) and sucrose preference (whether they enjoyed sweet food, a measure of anhedonia, or a reduced ability to experience pleasure) were measured.
The results: Unsurprisingly the outcomes for the rats in the experimental group were worse. They exhibited less peer play and higher levels of anhedonia. After this they performed some statistical modelling and determined that the pattern of care by the rats’ mothers was a contributing factor to the behavior exhibited. There’s more in the article and it’s a good read, only 7 pages so you should definitely read it.
My issue, however, is not with the study, but rather with the news articles.
Here’s another problematic quote from the UCI article (emphasis mine):
The UCI researchers discovered that erratic maternal care of infants can increase the likelihood of risky behaviors, drug seeking and depression in adolescence and adult life.Because cellphones have become so ubiquitous and users have become so accustomed to frequently checking and utilizing them, the findings of this study are highly relevant to today’s mothers and babies … and tomorrow’s adolescents and adults.
Nowhere in this paper is this even implied, directly or indirectly. No where. I’ve read the entire paper. Twice.
Now the implications are clear. Interruptions in the pattern of maternal care may in fact have an impact on human development. And animal studies are very important in assessing human behavior because you can randomly assign animals to be in certain conditions you can’t ethically assign children to be.
This is a good article. I enjoyed reading it and I can’t find any fault with the study. I’m not an expert in rodent studies so there may be a confound here that I’m missing.
My issue is with the news reporting. You can say, based on the evidence in this study, that human children reared in an impoverished environment wherein maternal care is frequently interrupted for various reasons may lead to a decrease in peer play and a decreased ability to feel pleasure (anhedonia), based on evidence seen in rats. You can then say that anhedonia has certain correlations to risky behavior, including but not limited to, depression and drug use in humans.1)Hatzigiakoumis, D. S., Martinotti, G., Giannantonio, M. D., & Janiri, L. (2011). Anhedonia and Substance Dependence: Clinical Correlates and Treatment Options. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 2. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2011.00010
But what you can’t say, as the paragraph above does, that frequent cell phone use by mothers will lead to more risky behaviors such as depression and drug use in children when they grow up. That’s not what the study says, and that’s not even what the study set out to investigate.
Once again a science journalist completely misrepresented a scientific article in order to produce a flashy headline. What’s so depressing, what’s so infuriating, is that the journalist who did this works for a University which should be devoted to honest and accurate science communication rather than flashy headlines designed to bring in donations.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||Hatzigiakoumis, D. S., Martinotti, G., Giannantonio, M. D., & Janiri, L. (2011). Anhedonia and Substance Dependence: Clinical Correlates and Treatment Options. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 2. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2011.00010|