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SALT LAKE CITY — If you've ever looked up from your phone only to see your child knee deep in a pile of shredded Kleenex or trying to fashion a rope swing from a jump rope and a ceiling fan, you're not alone.
Usually being distracted momentarily does not end in tragedy, but some experts now hypothesize the "texting while parenting" phenomenon is responsible for the recent spike in injuries in young children.
Nonfatal injuries to children ages 5 and younger fell steadily for decades before seeing a 12-percent spike between 2007 and 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The rise in injury occurrence correlates with an explosion of growth in smartphone use among Americans, with the number of those 13 and older who own a smartphone growing from almost 9 million in 2007 to 114 million in July 2012.
Rates of child injury had been in decline since the 1970s due to new products such as baby gates and safer playgrounds.
"It was something we were always fairly proud of," Dr. Jeffrey Weiss, a pediatrician at Phoenix Children's Hospital who serves on an American Academy of Pediatrics working group for injury, violence and poison prevention, told the Wall Street Journal. "The injuries were going down and down and down … (The recent spike) is pretty striking."
- Chairs and sofas: +27.3 percent
- Nursery equipment: +30.5 percent
- Playground equipment: +16.5 percent
- Swimming pools: +35.9 percent
- Unintentional fall: +17.8 percent
- Struck by an object: +6.5 percent
- Object in eye, throat, etc.: +10.5 percent
- Near drowning: +105.3 percent
Data from the Consumer Product Safety Commission shows the spike seems largely to come from an increase in injuries occurring at ages or during activities when children need to be closely supervised. Injuries on playground equipment among children under 5 jumped by 17 percent between 2007 and 2010, and injuries involving nursery equipment jumped by 31 percent in the same time period.
"It's very well understood within the emergency-medicine community that utilizing devices — hand-held devices — while you are assigned to watch your kids — that resulting injuries could very well be because you are utilizing those tools," Dr. Wally Ghurabi, medical director of the emergency center at the Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center and Orthopaedic Hospital, told the Journal.
The data does not prove causation, though. There are a number of factors that could have affected injuries in that time frame, including new toys, product recalls and simply anomalous occurrences. There have been no formal studies on the connection, and experts say it could be difficult to establish a firm relationship, since parents tend to resist self-reporting perceived "failures" in parenting.
"Folks are not going to admit to the fact that — look I was doing this, and that's why my kid fell off and broke his arm," Ghurabi said.
The Journal article, which was this week's cover story in the paper's Review section, has sparked an Internet debate about whether parents should feel guilty for being on their phone while their children are around.
"Parents today might find themselves slightly ‘distracted' from their kid's 80th trip down the curly slide, but we're still a lot more diligent than the ‘Go outside and play but make sure you come home for supper!' parents of yesterday," Jacqueline Burt wrote on the blog Cafe Mom. "And somehow, either way, the human race manages to survive."
Some of the Wall Street Journal's own raised the question of when a parent crosses the line from conscientious to helicopter. Kate Linebaugh of the Journal wrote that raising an independent child is important to her, so she hopes her 2-year-old is capable of entertaining himself while she is preparing a meal or checking her email.
"Everyone has different comfort levels with safety issues. Heck, my husband and I do," she wrote. "The temptation to think texting doesn't take any time can be dangerous while watching a child. But I also think it's important to give children room to discover the world on their own, learn the rules — and sometimes fall down while they are doing it."