11. The influence of parental
smartphone use, eye contact and
‘bystander ignorance’ on child
Sanna Raudaskoski, Eerik Mantere and
Digital technologies and media have changed the daily lives of families
around the world by creating new interactional contexts and relational
patterns (e.g., Ólafsson et al., 2013; Wartella et al., 2013). The familial
use of digital media has quickly renewed the structure, function and
mentality of family interaction. Smartphones are the flagships of new
digital media and the number of smartphone owners (Smith, 2015), as well
as the frequency of smartphone use (Rosen, 2012; ebrand, 2015; Turkle,
2015), has been increasing rapidly. The shift from the ‘computer age’ to
the ‘smartphone age’ is a reality all over the world (Carson and Lundvall,
A common response to criticism of new technology states that
technologies have always been met with suspicion and horror stories that
in hindsight have turned out to be exaggerated. The hampering effects
of smartphone use on simultaneous face-to-face interaction have been
dubbed the phenomenon of the ‘sticky media device’ and concern has
been raised about parental smartphone use in particular (see Chapter 9 in
this book). But why should using a smartphone differ in this regard from
reading a book or making dinner? Can parental attention not be ‘stuck’
on various things and so lead to absent or confusing responses to a child?
In this chapter, we illustrate the central mechanisms of smartphone
use that, from the point of view of small children, set the parental use
of the smartphone significantly apart from many other activities in the
visible home environment. There is a point to be made that, for example,
television and magazines do not create a similar interactional structure with
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174 Media, family interaction and the digitalization of childhood
their user based on turn-by-turn actions (cf. Mantere and Raudaskoski,
Chapter 9 in this book), but we also argue that there are other as yet
uninspected elements in the equation that are crucial for understanding
what the spread of smartphones into the everyday lives of families can
mean for a developing child. Compared to the handling of other objects in
the home environment, the use of smartphones is exceptional in two major
ways: (1) it catches the gaze and thus draws the caregiver away from the
participation framework and (2) it conveys exceptionally few signs of the
activity that the caregiver is engaged in.
We start off the chapter by considering the meaning of gaze in early
interaction, focusing on how it paves the way for attachment and social
skills. After that, we discuss the affordances of environmental artefacts
and their part in the process of socialization. Following this, we introduce
the new concept of ‘bystander ignorance’, which illustrates the role
of smartphone use from the point of view of another person in the
same physical space with the smartphone user. We approach bystander
ignorance by considering the situational aspects of parental smartphone
use relevant to a small child. To conclude, we discuss the possible
influences of bystander ignorance on child development and highlight the
need for further studies.
THE ROLE OF EYE CONTACT IN EARLY
Making eye contact is the most powerful mode of establishing a communicative
link between humans. During their first year of life, infants learn rapidly that
the looking behavior of others conveys significant information. Human infants
prefer to look at faces that engage them in mutual gaze and that, from an early
age, healthy babies show enhanced neural processing of direct gaze. (Farroni et
al., 2002, p. 9602)
The quality of the parent–child relationship has endured in the history of
the human sciences as the paramount factor in child development (e.g.,
Bowlby, 1969; Valsiner and Connolly, 2005). Studies in the field highlight
that making eye contact is the most powerful mode of establishing a
communicative link between humans. For people with well- functioning
eyesight, gaze is one of the major aspects of forming a system of
attachment between a caregiver and child. Moreover, early sensitivity to a
mutual gaze is arguably the basic foundation for the later development of
In the early weeks and months of a baby’s life, eye contact with others
‘maintains life’ by tempting the child into curiosity and activity. It is
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Smartphone use, eye contact and ‘bystander ignorance’ 175
essential for the development of humans to understand that faces can
reflect internal states of social partners, at the hub being the importance
of processing information about eyes and eye-gaze direction (e.g., Robson,
1967; Tomasello, 1999a; Farroni et al., 2002; Ayers, 2003). At all ages, a
gaze shared between two persons is a way of showing a willingness to
begin a mutual encounter (Goffman, 1963, pp. 91–5; Argyle and Dean,
1965, p. 291; Kendon, 1967). Eye contact is also the beginning of relating
to objects, which forms a model for how the child becomes familiar with
the world. Thus, among human beings, gaze seems to function to provide
information, regulate interaction, express intimacy, exercise social control,
and facilitate task goals (Kleinke, 1986).
The links between eye contact and emotional responsiveness have been
reported in a number of studies (e.g., Ainswort et al., 1971). The sensitive
responses of parents to a child’s signals can strengthen the child’s positive
emotional states and modulate negative ones, forming a specific style
of attachment (Bowlby, 1969; Ainsworth, 1979). Infants needing care in
order to survive seek proximity to the parents or other caregivers and
try to establish communication with them. Repeated experiences become
encoded as expectations and then as mental models of attachment, which
give children a sense of security called the secure base (Siegel, 1999).
Thus, with small children, the direction of the gaze is linked to whether
the caregivers are emotionally available. Emotional availability has been
called the ‘connective tissue of healthy socioemotional development’
(Easterbrooks and Biringen, 2000, p. 123). According to earlier studies,
emotional availability, coherent behaviour and adequate stimulation can be
associated with the development of an emotionally and socially competent
child, whereas the experience of emotional unavailability, incoherent
behaviour and inconsistent reactions in the early years of life may
lead to ambivalent emotional reactions in later social relations. Parental
under-attuning can be connected to the fragmentation of children’s
attention, uncertain mutuality, ambivalent emotionality, and insecure
relationships (Kreppner, 2005).
Koulomzin et al. (2002) found that the attachment styles of one-
year-old infants could already be predicted by the behaviour the infants
showed while playing with their mothers at the age of four months.
By coding specifically the gaze, head orientation, facial expression and
self-touching/mouthing behaviour, they concluded that compared to
children who ended up having insecure/avoidant attachment style, the
future-secure infants spent more time focusing their visual attention on
the face of the mother than those with a future-avoidant attachment
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176 Media, family interaction and the digitalization of childhood
LEARNING SOCIAL SKILLS
The long-standing social psychological concepts of the ‘looking-glass
self’ (Cooley, 1902) and the ‘generalized other’ (Mead, 1934) state that the
development of the self is based on children’s understanding of how others
perceive them, and a person’s self grows out of interpersonal interactions
and the perceptions of others. A child’s perceptions of how parents or
other caregivers acknowledge his or her initiatives determine the child’s
view of themselves.
Studies show that long before children are able to speak, they encounter
an interactionally organized social world (e.g., Goffman, 1964; Tomasello,
1999a, p. 71; Levison, 2006, p. 40), even just after their birth (e.g., Meltzoff and
Moore, 1977; Stern, 1985). Early-appearing forms of communicative actions
are carried out through visible bodily behaviour, including, for instance,
pointing gestures and gaze (Liszkowski, 2006; Lerner et al., 2011). It has been
argued that even if human children had an evolutionary based biological
readiness for interaction, the actual process of developing communicative
skills conforms to the requirements of the observable order of interaction
and participation in it (Levinson, 2006, p. 54; Lerner et al., 2011, p. 57).
Interaction is characterized by an expectation of the next relevant action
and its close timing (Levinson 2006, p. 46). Significant for understanding
the issues that shape the child’s emerging social skills is the orientation that
children – and those with whom they interact – have on the production and
recognition of mutual understandings. This view of development brings
into focus the subtle changes in association produced by the child, which
are often shown to be highly sensitive to the communicative sequence in
which they occur (Gardner and Forrester, 2010). Already young infants
comprehend normative expectations of face-to-face interaction and find
even short temporary violations of these expectations upsetting (Mesman
et al., 2009). However simple an action may appear, it is a sequentially
organized, locally realized practical activity with an emergent structure
that provides the resources for the recognition and production of actions
relevant to it. Thus, what is glossed as ‘socialization’ takes place as conduct
situated in these constituents of the toddler’s everyday life (Lerner et al.,
2011, p. 57; Keel, 2016)
The learning of social skills is complex, and the meaningful layering
of gaze, gesture, talk and other resources are very much part of the
communicative framework at any age. Local sequential issues are always
inextricably linked to wider issues of the child’s emerging membership
within society (Gardner and Forrester, 2010). We stress here Mantere and
Raudaskoski’s notion of how the use of smartphone hampers the smooth
sequential progression of interaction and the timing of relevant next actions
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Smartphone use, eye contact and ‘bystander ignorance’ 177
(see Chapter 9 in this book). Thus, there is a point to be made that the use
of the smartphone creates a competing participation framework (Goffman,
1981) that has an effect on simultaneous face-to-face interaction.
As said earlier, gaze orientation gives the infant fundamental information
about the caregiver’s emotions and involvement, which, accordingly,
influences the baby’s feelings of safety and security. The opportunity to
recognize another’s intention to approach or avoid is one of the principal
mediating factors governing social interaction. Research has shown
that approach-oriented emotions like joy, love and affection are usually
expressed with a direct gaze, whereas avoidance-oriented emotions such
as sorrow, bewilderment and disgust are displayed with an averted gaze.
Because gaze direction conveys important information about a person’s
thoughts and emotions and specific gaze behaviours tend to co-occur with
particular facial displays of emotion, these gaze behaviours might also
influence how such facial displays are perceived by others (Adams and
Kleck, 2005, pp. 3–4).
Thus, a caregiver looking at the screen of the smartphone may produce
a facial expression of joy, but it is not synchronized with eye contact,
and this produces ambivalent information about the caregiver’s affective
state in relation to the bystanding baby. In addition, because the attention
fluctuates between the face-to-face situation and the smartphone, it
is unclear to others which level of awareness about the participation
framework should be expected of them. Babies do not yet comprehend
the frame of action produced by parental smartphone use, and cannot
interpret the multiple actions.
The question we want to raise is that if theories of human development
unquestionably argue for the importance of eye contact in the early
development of children, what are the possible effects of frequent
smartphone use by parents? What happens if, due to smartphone use, a
parent or another significant caregiver is misattuned, withdrawn, rejecting,
and does not produce a response to the excited, crawling, playing child
who is unable to engage the caregiver’s eyes? Following the interaction
order and the sequential progression of face-to-face activity would be
difficult for anyone – let alone young children – when one of the members
is simultaneously oriented towards an activity with a smartphone.
THE AFFORDANCES OF ARTEFACTS AND
Human babies start imitating the facial expressions of others almost
immediately after birth. Initially, the brain of a newborn is not capable of
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178 Media, family interaction and the digitalization of childhood
organizing sensory-motor information of a degree much higher than the
movement of the eyes, but other forms of imitative behaviour manifest
as the brain matures: facial movements and increasingly sophisticated
movements of the hands are followed by the rest of the body all the way up
to complicated modulations in posture, conveying exact social information
with the fine-tuning of a fraction of a second (e.g., Vygotski, 1966; Stern,
1971; Meltzoff, 1996; Valsiner and Van der Veer, 2000).
Babies who are learning to interpret their environment come across
different kinds of objects and artefacts: they grasp, suck and manipulate
them and thus become aware of their affordances (Gibson, 1979). This is
called the direct learning of affordances. However, even physical objects
are usually encountered in a social framework, and thus most human
affordances are in fact ‘social’ (e.g., Reed, 1996, pp. 124–5; Ingold, 2000,
pp. 21–2). Children are selectively exposed to objects by other individuals,
and then begin to use them as reference points in deciding how to interact
with the objects in question (Tomasello, 1999b, p. 165).
The ability to process gaze information is pivotal when drawing
conclusions of behavioural intentions from the non-verbal behaviour of
others. Monitoring the caregiver’s direction of gaze tells the child where
the caregiver’s focus of attention is. Already very early on in their lives,
infants begin to tune in to and attempt to reproduce both the adults’
goal and their behavioural means: the artefacts come to embody what
Tomasello calls ‘intentional affordances’ (1999a, p. 84; 1999b, p. 166).
Children learn about the artefacts’ conventional or cultural affordances.
As human children observe other people using cultural tools and artefacts,
in Tomasello’s words (1999a, p. 81; 1999b) they often engage in the process
of ‘imitative learning’ in which they attempt to place themselves in the
‘intentional space’ of the other, discerning the other’s goal – that is, what
they are using the artefact ‘for’. In this process, children come to know not
only the sensory-motor affordances, but also the intentional affordances –
in other words, the intentional means that other people have in the world
through artefacts (Tomasello, 1999a, pp. 84–5).
The visible bodies of participants provide systematic, changing displays
about the orientation and goal-relevant actions. In addition to the
participants’ placement, the ability to perceive something meaningful
is always tied to access to relevant material surroundings. Rather than
standing alone as a self-contained domain, visual phenomena are
constituted and made meaningful through the way in which they are
embedded within a larger set of practices (Goodwin and Goodwin, 1996;
Goodwin, 2001). By engaging in imitative learning, the child joins the
other person in affirming what the object is used for: hammers are for
hammering and pencils are for writing (Tomasello, 1999a, p. 84). Usually in
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Smartphone use, eye contact and ‘bystander ignorance’ 179
these kinds of situations of imitative learning, there is a plethora of visual,
auditory or even other types of information instantly available for the child
to maintain the sense of what is going on in the social setting. Children’s
embodied engagement with an environment of intentional affordances is
shaped into meaningful actions through interaction with an experienced
practitioner – a caregiver– through the structure of mutual accessibility
created in the joint participation framework (cf. Goffman, 1981; Fogel,
1993, pp. 89–98; Goodwin, 2007, p. 59). This kind of joint attention, in
which multiple actors are attending the same object in the environment,
is a key aspect in the organization of human intersubjectivity (Tomasello,
1999a, p. 62).
Traceable courses of actions also play a part in the process of learning
the emotional states of others, that is, the affective relationships between
actors and intentional affordances (cf. Ingold, 2000, p. 23). The mental
states of people physically near to us are not their individual business
alone. They are highly relevant to all sharing the space with them. One has
to be aware of all the semiotic resources (Goodwin, 2000) to make sense of
the relationship between mental states and objects of actions in order to
determine whether some action, or any action, on our part is befitting or
We argue that unlike most artefacts in the human environment, smart-
phones serve poorly as intentional affordances for small children. The
smartphone – and its use – does not include such clues that enable the
‘intentional stance’ (Dennett, 1987) of the user to be easily traced. Because
we do not readily see what activity a user is performing with a smartphone,
we can neither easily interpret the phase of their action: they serve poorly
as a basis for the framework of joint attention. Next, we will theoretically
conceptualize this phenomenon by introducing ‘bystander ignorance’.
A caregiver using a smartphone draws back from the participation
framework, which in practice means that his or her gaze and attention
averts from the child and the surroundings, and fastens onto the screen
of the device. The interactional nature of most applications used by the
smartphone leads to a situation where it is not easy to take one’s eyes from
the screen. At the same time, the traceable hints of the sequences and goals
of smartphone activity, which can be anything from playing a game to
closing a deal with a customer, become unclear. This notion leads to the
central issue of our chapter: caregivers starting to use a smartphone to
a large extent stop giving hints of the goals of their actions to the child
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180 Media, family interaction and the digitalization of childhood
watching them, and the child cannot infer from the posture and gestures
of the caregiver or the shape and state of the smartphone which action
the caregiver is currently performing. This aspect of smartphone use
is by and large missing in other forms of solitary activity that a parent
might become absorbed in. Having recognized this special aspect, we have
named it ‘bystander ignorance’ and define it thus: the exceptional level and
quality of unawareness that a person interested in pursuing face-to-face
interaction with a smartphone user has about the aspects of the activity
that the user is currently engaged in.
It is surely also a case with other object-aided actions that the action
could be interpreted by the bystander to fall into more than one category.
For example, a parent going through papers on a desk might be working,
paying bills or just tidying up. However, of all the objects within the
modern household, it is exactly the smartphone that is the medium for the
greatest number and variation of possible actions and it is simultaneously
the object that offers the least number of cues to the bystander about the
particular action taking place. The screen of the smartphone is smaller
than that of a TV, laptop or even tablet computer, and unlike a TV or
laptop, it is usually directly facing the eyes of the user at a close enough
distance that the screen is unlikely to be seen by anyone else.
In many activities, such as making dinner or watching television, there
are immediately available hints to the bystander about the phase of the
activity. Children can trace the sequential progression of the activity and
in time get acquainted with the appropriate norms of behaviour (see also
Chapters 9 and 10 of this book). In the case of smartphone use, however,
the categories of action are so supremely hidden to the bystander that in
comparison to the use of other domestic objects, the opportunities for
social learning and comprehensive socialization to different areas and
sectors of life circumstances can be hard to discern.
Of course, seeing a parent using a smartphone will give information
about smartphone use to the child, and surely there are already many
norms and schemas that today’s children learn about smartphone use. One
norm that accompanies poor intentional affordances of smartphone use
is the private nature of its use. When a child is old enough to understand
the concept of privacy, this element also begins to contribute to bystander
ignorance. Viewing another person’s smartphone screen should be avoided
(unless actively shared by the user). This being commonly assumed,
the unprompted viewing of someone else’s smartphone screen can be
perceived as a breach of privacy. It is about accepting and normalizing the
‘absent presence’ that Kenneth J. Gergen (2002) talked about already in the
early 2000s when mobile phones had become common. One is physically
present, but is absorbed into a virtual world by mediating technology.
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Smartphone use, eye contact and ‘bystander ignorance’ 181
Gergen predicted that with the inevitable tendency towards ever more
applications and functions in mobile phones, absent presence would
proliferate in the future. He was right.
As discussed, in the early days of infancy, eye contact is of utmost
importance in creating a secure attachment between the child and caregiver.
However, young adults in the 2010s – and thus parents-to-be – are used to
looking at their smartphones at least every 15 minutes and putting online
textual interaction before face-to-face conversation (Turkle, 2015). We
argue that within this world of ‘conversational silence’, where eyes are
glued to the mobile screen, the production of relevant eye contact with
children and timely, correct interactional turns is at risk.
Exploring the video data collected during the project ‘Media, Family
Interaction and Children’s Well-Being’ (665 hours in total; see Appendix1)
clearly shows that there is a process of increasingly complex imitation
going on in the day-to-day lives of these families with children. Children
can be seen imitating not only their parents, who may be preparing food or
watering the plants, but also television characters, for example. Depending
on their age, the children’s performances varied from the imitation of bodily
movements to the more sophisticated imaginative play of a professional or
some other social identity. The imitative ability encompasses ever-greater
complexity through the synergetic development of the brain in union with
the practice-driven development of mental skill. What jumps out when
observing modern family life is that among all the activities taken up by
the primary objects of imitation (by the primary agents of socialization,
i.e., the caregivers), there is one that stands alone in being shrouded in
mystery when it comes to the child being able to see and follow the actual
action of the caregiver. Whereas an undertaking of watering the plants
is something that can be mimicked even by a two-year-old, the use of a
personal smartphone by various means towards various ends is an activity
that for a young bystander does not in fact open up as a process of doing
something. ‘What is mother doing with her smartphone?’ asked one of the
authors of their nephew. ‘Talking’, the child replied. ‘And when she is not
talking, what is she doing?’ the researcher continued. ‘I don’t know’, said
the child. With the proliferation of smartphones into the everyday lives of
families, children are in ever-increasing numbers observing their parents
perform actions that do not look like actions, towards ends that they
have no information about. The whole process of imitating the parents’
smartphone use consists of taking the device in one’s hand and looking at
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182 Media, family interaction and the digitalization of childhood
it. Here is the key issue: what is the practice of the skill of imitation leading
towards in the ability to take roles in this imitative process? What are the
quantity and quality of the actions to be imitated in the case of smart-
phone use? To the child undergoing the imitation of what he or she has
seen, there is no recognizable sequence, no stages of planning, preparation,
execution and completion, no evaluation and revision – there is indeed
uniquely little to copy and hence uniquely few actions to be taken as a
role expectation. ‘Bystander ignorance’ caused by the invisible procedures
of another person’s smartphone use can thus hamper the progression of
social skills, and consequently may affect the development of children.
In stating this hypothesis, we acknowledge the need for further empirical
research, both in naturally occurring and experimental research settings.
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