Most will acknowledge that good and bad comes from our use of smartphones—and a researcher in Fort Wayne wants to call attention to both and how technology impacts the earliest days of parenting. The unique study is taking a closer look at parents’ phone habits, their mental health and how both affect their relationship with their baby. It marks the first National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant awarded to the Parkview Mirro Center for Research and Innovation, and Dr. Brandon McDaniel wants participating moms and dads—most of the them Hoosiers—to know from the get-go: he’s not going to “throw parents under the bus.”
“Many people take the research that’s out there [about phone use], blow it into big headlines and talk about it as if it’s all bad. And it makes parents feel even more guilty, because we’re all just doing our best, but it’s really hard,” says McDaniel, a research scientist at the Mirro Center. “We’re trying to look at it from the perspective that there are both good and bad things that can come from our [phone] use.”
McDaniel says using phones can support parents and help them build relationships during the stressful early days of parenting, but phones can also be distracting and “pull us apart” from family members in subtle ways. With deep expertise in family relationships and technology use, McDaniel’s study is designed to understand how phone use positively impacts parents, uncover its potential pitfalls and teach new parents how to develop healthy digital habits that benefit them and their baby.
“Techno-ference” is the term McDaniel created to describe those moments when technology interferes or interrupts the interactions we have with others. McDaniel says he chose to focus the study on infancy, because it’s a critical period in a child’s life.
“There are a lot of bonding and relationship experiences that are set up early on. A lot of those are affected by ways in which the parent interacts with the child,” says McDaniel. “Infants, in particular, need high-quality, responsive interactions from their parents.”
McDaniel uses a simple example to illustrate how “techno-ference” can creep into family life. When parent and baby are sitting on the couch together, high-quality interaction is characterized by things like eye contact, physical touch, verbalization between the two and the parent’s responsiveness to the infant’s cues—such as the baby looking at mom or dad, because she wants their attention. If parents are distracted, they’re less likely to notice the baby looking at them, for example, and may be less responsive or slower to respond.
“I’m not worried about every once in a while, but if it’s happening a lot, that’s when we start to get worried,” says McDaniel. “You want to set [infants] up to have strong bonding experiences with their parents and what we call a strong attachment relationship, which can range from insecure to secure. We want them to have a more secure relationship, which means they have a healthier relationship, because that can impact them for the rest of their lives and the way they view relationships.”
McDaniel and his research team, which includes two other Mirro research scientists, will recruit about 250 parents of infants to participate in the study, including parents at Parkview Health. While enrollment is open to the entire U.S., most of the parents will likely be Hoosiers. Using a variety of tools such as surveys, apps that monitor phone usage and interviews, the team will collect and analyze parents’ phone use and their mental health. From that input, the team will develop programming to help parents have healthy digital habits and present the information to parent focus groups.
“This entire line of research is centered around understanding all of the unique experiences of parents and the ways in which it’s impacting them for good and the potential pitfalls,” says McDaniel. “Then, we’ll design things around this to help people develop healthier digital habits that are going to improve their relationships and make stronger families.”
As the health system’s first NIH grant, the research is also a “baby step” toward even bigger projects and “could potentially open the flood gates to Parkview for a lot of future funding from the NIH,” says McDaniel. He believes the award is also evidence of the caliber of research at Parkview; the NIH grant process is extremely competitive and only awards funding to about 10% of applicants.
“I’m excited [to use this grant] to help families,” says McDaniel. “That’s the whole reason I get up and go to work—to be able to influence people for good and help them bolster their relationships. We want parents to have healthier, happier relationships with their children and better mental health.”
After fully analyzing the data collected from 250 parents, McDaniel says the research team will create programming to help parents of infants develop healthy digital habits.
McDaniel believes the grant is evidence that the NIH recognizes the “unique conglomeration” within the Mirro research team.