Yale economist Craig Palsson has a new article [pdf] asking whether the growing use of smartphones by parents of young children is responsible for the increased rate of injuries among children younger than 5. While technically the article doesn’t actually say anything about snake pits, the implication is clearly there. Or at least I see it.
Anyway, in the wonderfully-titled article “That Smarts!: Smartphones and Child Injuries,” Palsson explains,
I am interested in how smartphones… lead parents to make decisions that increase the risk of child injury. Smart-phones may increase injuries through two mechansims. First, they increase the opportunity cost of supervising children, and the decrease in supervision leads to more injuries. Second, they may decrease the opportunity cost of participating in risky activities, such as playing at the park or pool, and the increased participation leads to more injuries. I investigate both mechanisms and find strong evidence that smartphone adoption has caused child injuries to increase. I also find support that the increase comes from smartphones distracting parents.
It looks in particular at injury rates (as reported by the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s National Electronic Injury Surveillance System) in areas during Apple’s release of its iPhone and AT&T’s rollout of 3G cell networks. This lets Palsson measure changes in injury rates as people switch from feature phones to smartphone, and presumably have greater opportunities to be distracted by their phones.
So what does he find?
Using the hospital-level variation in 3G access, I find that smartphones increase injuries to children, particularly those younger than five, a group more at risk of injury in the absence of parental supervision. My findings suggest that the expansion of smartphones can explain almost the entire increase in child injuries. Furthermore, I find that injuries increase in riskier activities, when parental supervision can make a decisive role in preventing accidents. These effects are absent in activities where the parents are not the primary supervisors [i.e., school playgrounds that are monitored by teachers] and in activities where supervision makes no difference on outcomes. The evidence from these results strongly supports a scenario where parents are distracted by their smartphones and decrease supervising their children.
Now, it’s worth noting that the study doesn’t try to figure out whether parents were playing Angry Birds or dealing with angry clients: i.e., whether they were distracted by trivial things, or trying to deal simultaneously with the challenges of being parents and professionals or managers.
However, it does seem to me to make a compelling case for the appearance of smartphones causing a measurable increase in distracted parenting.
It’s also the kind of article that has the sorts of parenthetical that only economists can get away with, like "If one assumes a unitary household model, then the increase in injuries is optimal," and "taking time away from watching your daughter color probably will not lead to her getting injured, while not watching her on the playground might,” and my personal favorite, “in the case of Brazil and India, families derived more utility on the margin from watching television than from sex or domestic violence.”