Texting information, tips, and activities to parents can help promote behaviors beneficial for childhood development.
The sheer volume of parenting advice resources available—websites, books, magazine articles, shows, social media channels—have long demonstrated the need for information that parents and caregivers can use to raise happy, healthy children. One promising and low-cost mechanism to reach parents that has emerged over the past decade is text messaging.
With growing investment and popularity in texting or mobile messaging programs, researchers have been eager to understand more about their impact on parent-child interactions.
To fill this knowledge gap, researchers at SRI International’s Education division recently conducted a study evaluating engagement and parenting behaviors linked to the use of mobile messaging programs—which send text messages to parents several times per week with information, tips, and activities that can be incorporated into daily routines, such as meal prep or bath time. The study found encouraging outcomes, suggesting the programs can assist in supporting childhood development.
“In the parenting world, there’s a ton of advice and information out there, but some of it is not very accessible and can be really hard to pull off amidst the hustle and bustle of daily life,” said Elisa Garcia, a Senior Education Researcher at SRI Education’s Center for Learning and Development and lead author of the study.
The study focused on responsive caregiving—a term which refers to warm and supportive parenting practices, such as engaging children in back-and-forth (“serve and return”) conversations and using new and varied language, even before the children have learned to talk.
The study also examined other outcomes, like attitudes toward parenting, parent confidence, parental knowledge, and engagement in literacy activities. The research is clear on the benefits of responsive caregiving for the development of communication and social skills for children. But the reality is that these behaviors are hard to cultivate, they take time, and most parents are contending with packed schedules.
“These messaging programs have emerged as a way to reach parents where they are with ideas that are bite-sized,” said Sarah Gerard, a researcher at SRI Education and a lead author of the report. “Even before the pandemic, it was tough to balance the demands of school and work with taking time to nurture children’s learning. The pandemic made these challenges even more difficult to navigate, especially for those of us whose children aren’t in kindergarten yet.”
Evaluation process and response
For the study, SRI Education researchers partnered with Bright by Text (BBT) and Univision and recruited two separate nationwide groups of parents, both with children between the ages of 18 and 36 months, to try out mobile messaging programs offered by each organization.
The study’s two populations matched that of typical subscribers to the programs. The group who used BBT’s program consisted of 409 parents, half of which were white, and 84% of which had an associate’s degree or higher. The second group of 372 parents used a Spanish language program Consejos de Univision (“Advice from Univision”) developed in partnership with Too Small to Fail. 93% of this group was Hispanic/Latine, and about half had some college or more education.
All study participants were initially surveyed about their use of responsive caregiving, parenting attitudes, knowledge, and confidence. Once program use got underway, messages prompted parents to, for example, share rhymes with a child or play a game of “Will it float or sink?” at bath time.
After 12 weeks of messaging, participants were surveyed again to see what, if anything, had changed. Responses were compared to a control group of study participants who did not receive the text messages. The researchers also conducted interviews with ten parents to gather more in-depth feedback about their experiences.
Positive parenting outcomes
Overall, the study results were mixed. The study did not find that the mobile messaging programs boosted responsive caregiving. The researchers note that these interactions are hard to change and typically supported with intensive coaching. The light touch of occasional text messaging may be insufficient, at least on its own, to effectively promote these beneficial behaviors, the researchers concluded.
However, the study did offer other positive takeaways. For instance, texting parents affected parents’ reading activities with their children. Parents who received Consejos messages reported that they read more frequently with their children and engaged in more frequent shared reading activities, like labeling pictures and asking questions while reading a story, than parents in the comparison group.
What’s more, when the researchers compared parents with older children versus parents with younger children, they found that Consejos messages did not affect all parents in the same way. Parents with younger children reported that they read more, engaged in more shared reading activities, and they had higher self-efficacy as well as higher knowledge about parenting compared to comparison group parents with younger children. This may indicate that parents of younger children are seeking more guidance on parenting behaviors than those with more experience.
In interviews, parents said they liked that they could read the text messages on their own time. Participants further expressed that while they did not feel that they had to use the activities exactly as described, the messages sparked ideas for how they could interact with their children.
“Our takeaway is that for many parents, receiving the text messages helps spark connections,” says Gerard. “We heard from one parent that receiving the message was a reminder that their kiddo had been looking at a screen a lot that day and it was time to take a break to read a book together instead—we’ve all been there!”
“The activities and language prompts in parent-focused mobile messaging can help parents learn about ways to interact with their kids and make the most out of the time they spend together,” said Garcia. “For parents whose kids are 2 years old or younger, the information and activities might particularly help them learn about ways to interact with their kids – and give them a confidence boost.”
For more parenting tips and activities from Too Small to Fail, see https://talkingisteaching.org/. For more on serve and return caregiving, which informed this research, see the FIND program and the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.