Hey, You On the Cell Phone: You’re a Terrible Parent

Accidents among kids are up thanks to smartphone-wielding parents.

If you want to piss people off, tell them they’re bad parents. Guess what? The Wall Street Journal is pissing people off. A story over the weekend noted that non-fatal injuries to kids shot up between 2007 and 2010 after a steady decline since the 1970s. Emergency room physicians are blaming the trend reversal on … yup. Your damned phone.

Granted, the experts cited by the WSJ don’t have any studies to prove that one’s ability to look at Facebook photos or check Gawker at the park has caused the upswing in accidents. But they do note a pretty strong correlation. And insidiously and infamously, people using cell phones don’t feel like their attention is impaired. Rahul Rastogi, an emergency-room doc for Kaiser Permanente in Oregon, is quoted as saying, “We think we’re multi-tasking and not really feeling like we are truly distracted. But in reality we are.”

The increased accident rate is highest in younger kids and lower for older kids—which would make sense, since the older kids are less in need of adult oversight. (In a tidy corollary, accidents caused by “distracted walking”—i.e., perambulating while talking on cell phones—have quadrupled in the past seven years.)

How high is “up”? Injuries due to playground equipment in kids under five are up 17 percent; swimming-pool injuries have climbed 36 percent in the same age group. But worse than the stats are the harrowing tales: A Connecticut woman was charged with reckless endangerment when the child she was babysitting fell in a swimming pool and nearly drowned. She told the EMT she had her eyes off the kid and on a Facebook photo for no more than 30 seconds; surveillance cameras showed she was distracted for three whole minutes while he fell in and sank to the bottom.

In another pool tragedy, a tweeting mom’s two-year-old drowned while she was posting pictures of a tortoise that was in their backyard. Philly’s own Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a Temple prof and psychologist who’s a major advocate of letting kids play, had her students keep track of 30 parents who were with their kids in public places. Their conclusion? It was rare for parents not to interrupt their time with their offspring to use a phone. “In one case,” Hirsh-Pasek told the WSJ, “a parent let go of her kid’s hand in the middle of a big street in Philadelphia to check a text message.” Even if by some miracle your kids don’t get hurt, they’re absorbing a lesson: What you’re doing with them is far less important to you than whatever might be happening on your phone.