The Still Face Experiment Shows the Damage Done When Parents Stare at Their Phones

Among many other things, parental attention is one of the most crucial elements for the healthy development of babies and young children. According to psychoanalyst Edward Tronick, mobile phones are the most influential modern gadget that hinders this parental attention to a great extent, leaving a child distressed and disturbed. Tronick’s famous ‘still face experiment’ shows this psychological cause-and-effect chain quite vividly.

The Still Face Experiment

The 40-year-old still-face experiment is crucially relevant, even today! In this experiment, a parent and baby start to play together. Then, prompted by the researcher, the parent turns their face away from the toddler for a moment and then turns it back, but this time it’s completely expressionless. The baby tries to get the parent to smile again, but the parent keeps up a flat face, remaining unresponsive and neutral. Within a few minutes, the child starts crying, squirming, and desperately trying to connect with the parent. Then on a second cue, the parent turns away once again and looks back at the baby with the previous normal facial expression. Being soothed by the parent, the baby quickly recovers, forgets it all, and then gets back to play as if nothing happened.

The Probable Effect

This experiment shows that the connection with adults, especially with parental figures, is highly powerful for infants. The negative impact on them, while being disconnected from those people, is similarly powerful too! The experiment sheds light on the possible impacts of parental neglect during childhood, the most important and vulnerable time of our lives. According to Tronick, further psychological studies find that, if continued, such neglect can last through adulthood, gradually transforming into a generational cycle, which then gets exceedingly difficult to break. Now, mobile phones are causing the same effect.

The Connection With Phones

According to developmental psychologist Dr. Caspar Addyman, the director of the Goldsmiths InfantLab at the Goldsmiths University of London, modern mobile phones or smartphones are bringing back the exact still-face paradigm. It mimics the same psychological effect by replacing the blank stare with a constant lack of eye contact in a parent-baby interaction. As Dr. Addyman explains, eye contact is highly crucial in a parent-child relationship as the brain waves of the two parties instantly sync up when they look at each other. This normal signaling process gets interrupted when parents stop looking at their babies’ faces because they’re busy scrolling on their phones. When repeated and continued for a longer time, this neglectful behavior eventually disconnects a child’s psyche from their parents, as an automatic cognitive response.