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How Your Cellphone Makes Your Baby Sad

Photograph by Twenty20

Sure, Jennifer Lawrence may have misfired when she scolded a reporter for looking at his iPhone during a press conference after the Golden Globes (the guy, according to most reports, wasn't a fluent English speaker and had to read his question from his phone).

Still, when Lawrence told the reporter, "You can't live your whole life behind your phone, bro," she had a point.

Especially for parents.

Researchers behind a new study are cautioning that mom life behind a phone could have a detrimental effect on babies' development—including, and especially, their future ability to take in pleasure and have fun.

The research, published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, found that babies raised by moms who were not distracted were better able to process pleasure, the absence of which may lead to depression. This finding led the study's researchers, Dr. Tallie Baram, professor of pediatrics and anatomy-neurobiology at University of California – Irvine, and her colleagues, to consider whether the children of parents who are always on their cellphones suffer similar fates.

In other words, Mom and Dad, your inability to step away from Facebook, Instagram, text alerts and Snaps could fundamentally alter the development of your baby's—your BABY'S—brains.

As any parent knows, it's never too early to screw up your kids. Though definitely keep in mind that this study was conducted on lab rats. Here's how it worked:

Researchers observed the behaviors of adolescent rats who had been born and raised in one of these two environments: where nesting and bedding material was plentiful and one where it wasn't. The tween rats in the former environment drank more sugar water and played more with friends than those raised in the latter. The tween rodents whose moms didn't have to keep going off to find cedar chips and torn-up paper towels had, you know, more fun in life.

Dr. Baram explained in Time magazine that, based on this study, her group is proposing that there is "a sensitive period in which maternal care needs to provide consistent patterns and sequences of behavior so the baby's brain can perceive them to develop normally emotionally." This predictability of care from mothers appeared to interact with the pleasure system, which needs to be engaged "so the neurons involved will fire together and then will wire together."

This research indicates there may be a critical time developmentally—and much younger than parents of babies may have thought about—where consistency of care is crucial. The rats all had enough food, enough space, the same conditions except for the nesting materials, which the moms in the modified environments had to interrupt grooming or delay signaling mealtime in order to look around for.

Baram doesn't think stress has much to do with the differences in offspring behavior, since other similar studies did not result in differences in pleasure seeking. It's the distracted, unpredictable parenting that made things worse.

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