"Is our smartphone addiction damaging our children?," The Guardian asks, after publication of a recent study into "technoference" – when people switch their attention away from others to check their phone or tablet.
The study, carried out in the US, involved more than 300 parents who reported on their use of digital technology, to see if they felt it affected interactions with their children and actual child behaviours. A range of technology devices were studied, including computers, television and tablets – not just smartphones.
It found half of parents reported that their use of technology disrupted interactions with their child three or more times a day. Behavioural problems in children were linked to these disruptions, but only for mother-child relationships, not for fathers.
The authors suggest this could be because in the sample, children spent more time with their mothers, so the number of "technoferences" were greater, but the true reason is unknown.
Most of us have experienced frustration or annoyance when somebody we are talking to suddenly breaks off to check their phone, so it is plausible that children go through similar emotions.
Children's behaviour can be affected by a variety of things, including life changes, the need for attention or parental mood. There is no one correct way to handle difficult behaviour but you could try talking to your child, being positive about the good things or rewarding good behaviour.
Read more advice about dealing with difficult behaviour in children.
The study was carried out by researchers from Illinois State University and the University of Michigan Medical School, both in the US. The study was funded by The Pennsylvania State University, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
The Guardian accurately reported the study.
This was a cross-sectional survey aiming to look at links between "problematic parental digital technology use" (such as having trouble resisting the urge to check a device or using a device too much), "technoference" in parent-child interactions and the child's behaviour.
This type of study is good for looking at information at one point in time, however it cannot demonstrate how outcomes change over time – a prospective cohort would be needed to examine this.
Technoference has been defined as everyday interruptions in interpersonal interactions or time spent together because of digital and mobile technology devices.
The study involved heterosexual parents with a child under the age of five (mean age was three years) who were currently living with their partner or spouse. They were asked to complete a survey between 2014 and 2016.
The survey was completed by 168 mothers and 165 fathers from 170 families in US regions, of which 61% of families had more than one child. 92% of parents were white, 95% were married and 73% parents had at least a bachelor's degree.
The survey looked at the following issues:
"Problematic parental digital technology use", which was measured by a three-item self-report scale, rated from strongly agree to strongly disagree:
Technoference in parent-child relationships, measured by mother and father self-reporting. Parents were asked "on a typical day, about how many times do the following devices interrupt a conversation or activity you are engaged in with your child?" from none to more than 20 times:
Child externalising and internalising behaviour problems: parents completed parts of a Child Behavioural Checklist concerning their child's behaviour now or within the past two months:
Co-parenting quality – how well parents work together in child rearing – was controlled for, as well as parent depressive symptoms and parenting stress. Parents also reported various demographic information and child media use.
The researchers concluded that their study "is the first to show significant associations between parent self-perceptions of problematic digital technology use, perceived technoference in parenting, and reported child behavioural difficulties."
The findings of this study suggest that when mothers and fathers report being distracted by digital technology, this causes interruptions in interactions with their children. These interruptions in mothers – but not fathers – seem to have an impact on child behaviour.
The authors suggest that the poor behavioural outcomes might only be found for mother-child interactions because children might react differently to maternal versus paternal responsiveness. It could also be that children simply spend more time with their mothers on a daily basis in this sample so there were more opportunities for technoference.
However, there are some important things to consider about this research:
Children can "act up" when they are tired, hungry, overexcited, frustrated or bored. Putting down your phone or tablet and engaging with your child could be an effective method of nipping such behaviour in the bud.