Driven to distraction

Following a period of decline, non-fatal injuries among children five years old and younger are on the rise. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that between 2001 and 2010, the rate started to climb. Between 2007 and 2010 alone, the injuries rose 12 percent.

Many are searching for an explanation for the rate reversal. Child safety experts are puzzled, especially in light of tighter safety regulations for everything from playgrounds to swimming pools.

textingA recent Wall Street Journal article explores a possible link between the rising injury rates with “device distraction” – parents’ and other guardians’ use of smartphones while supervising young children. According to the article, the number of Americans 13 and older who own a smartphone grew from almost 9 million in mid-2007 – the year Apple introduced its iPhone – to 63 million at the end of 2010. That number reached 114 million this past July or more than one in three people in the US.

There seems to be little formal research to support the notion that guardians’ smartphone use is directly linked to childhood injuries. However, the theory makes sense. Injuries and accidents involving device distraction have been documented in relation to other activities such as driving and even walking. For example, in the past seven years, reports of injuries to device-distracted pedestrians requiring emergency room treatment have more than quadrupled.

According to Dr. Wally Ghurabi, medical director of the emergency center at the Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center and Orthopaedic Hospital, “It’s very well understood within the emergency-medicine community that utilizing devices – hand-held devices – while you are assigned to watch your kids – that resulting injuries could very well be because you are utilizing those tools.”

Let’s examine the link more closely. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) reports that more injuries to children are occurring during activities and at ages that usually require adult supervision. According to CPSC, playground injuries among children under five years old increased 17 percent between 2007 and 2010, after going down during the previous five years.

The CPSC’s report tells us that even though guardians may be present, injuries among young children are on the rise. Why? Device distraction may be the answer. Not only do people underestimate the time they spend looking at their device, their response time when they try to shift their attention elsewhere may be impaired. Stanford University sociologist Clifford Nass found that it takes some time for people to refocus on what’s going on around them after concentrating on their electronic devices. Nass concludes that smartphone usage such as texting while supervising a child makes a person more likely to overlook typical pre-mishap warning signs, such as a child creeping higher and higher on a playground structure.

“What mobile technologies do is essentially remove you from the situation,” Nass says. “The ability to anticipate problems is much more reduced.”

Are you aware of the potential consequences of extended distraction when using smartphones and other electronic devices?  Have you considered making a conscious decision not to use such devices when supervising young children?


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