Half of parents reported that technology interrupted family time three or more times a day. Even in low amounts, interruptions to parent-child time caused by digital technology are linked to greater child behaviour problems, a new study suggests


Fatigue. Hunger. Boredom. Those are often on the list of reasons parents mention if their child whines, has tantrums or acts up.

Researchers are now asking if such negative behaviours could be related to something else: parents spending too much time on their smartphones or tablets.
A small study from University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital and Illinois State University found that heavy digital technology use by parents could be associated with child behaviour issues. The findings were published in the May 2017 online issue of Child Development.

Researchers analysed surveys completed separately by both mothers and fathers from 170 two-parent households. Mothers and fathers were asked about their use of smartphones, tablets, laptops and other technology – and how the devices disrupted family time (a disturbance that lead author Brandon T. McDaniel coins ‘technoference.’)

Interruptions could be as simple as checking phone messages during mealtime, playtime and routine activities or conversations with their children. Might a few stolen moments used to check a couple text messages have a deeper effect?

Tech-related interruption

While more research is needed, the study suggests that it might: even low or seemingly normal amounts of tech-related interruption were associated with greater child behaviour problems, such as oversensitivity, hot tempers, hyperactivity and whining.

“This was a cross-sectional study, so we can’t assume a direct connection between parents’ technology use and child behaviour but these findings help us better understand the relationship,” says senior author Jenny Radesky MD, a child behaviour expert and paediatrician at Mott. “It’s also possible that parents of children with behavioural difficulties are more likely to withdraw or de-stress with technology during times with their child.”

But she adds, “We know that parents’ responsiveness to their kids changes when they are using mobile technology and that their device use may be associated with less-than-ideal interactions with their children. It’s really difficult to toggle attention between all of the important and attention-grabbing information contained in these devices, with social and emotional information from our children, and process them both effectively at the same time.”

McDaniel, who designed and carried out the study, said researchers hope to learn more about the impact of increasing digital technology use on families and children.
“Research on the potential impact of this exposure lags far behind,” said McDaniel, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences at Illinois State University. “It’s too early to draw implications that could be used in clinical practice, but our findings contribute to growing literature showing an association between greater digital technology use and potential relationship dysfunction between parents and their children.”

Parents in the study were asked to rate how problematic their personal-device use was based on how difficult it was for them to resist checking new messages, how frequently they worried about calls and texts and if they thought they used their phones too much.

Participants also were asked how often phones, tablets, computers and other devices diverted their attention when otherwise engaged with their children.

On average, mothers and fathers both perceived about two devices interfering in their interactions with their child at least once or more on a typical day. Mothers, however, seemed to perceive their phone use as more problematic than fathers did. About half (48 per cent) of parents reported technology interruptions three or more times on a typical day, while 17 per cent said it occurred once and 24 per cent said it happened twice a day. Only 11 per cent said that no interruptions occurred.

Parents then rated child behaviour issues within the past two months by answering questions about how often their children whined, sulked, easily got frustrated, had tantrums or showed signs of hyperactivity or restlessness.

’Unplugged’ family time

The researchers controlled for multiple factors, such as parenting stress, depressive symptoms, income, parent education as well as co-parenting quality (how supportive partners were of each other in parenting their child), which has been shown to predict child behaviour.

The study joins other research and advocacy groups contributing to a larger debate about technology and its effect on child development.

Some professional societies, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and Zero to Three, recommend ‘unplugged’ family time. But they have not tested whether lessening or changing digital technology use during parent-child activities is associated with improved child behaviour.

McDaniel and Radesky advise parents to try to carve out designated times to put away the devices and focus all attention on their children. Reserving certain times of the day or locations as being technology-free – such as mealtime or playtime right after work – may help to ease family tensions caused by the modern blurring of outside worlds with home life, they say.

“Parents may find great benefits from being connected to the outside world through mobile technology, whether that’s work, social lives or keeping up with the news. It may not be realistic, nor is it necessary, to ban technology use all together at home,” Radesky said. “But setting boundaries can help parents keep smartphones and other mobile technology from interrupting quality time with their children.”

Journal reference:
Brandon T. McDaniel, Jenny S. Radesky. ‘Technoference: Parent Distraction With Technology and Associations With Child Behavior Problems.’ Child Development, 2017; DOI: 10.1111/cdev.12822

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Fatigue. Hunger. Boredom. Those are often on the list of reasons parents mention if their child whines, has tantrums or acts up. Researchers are now asking if such negative behaviours could be related to something else: parents spending too much time on their smartphones or tablets. A small study from University...