Pregnancy and child

Parents' phone addiction may lead to child behavioural problems

"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.

Where did the story come from?

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 study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Child Development on an open-access basis, meaning it is freely available to read online.

The Guardian accurately reported the study.

What kind of research was this?

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.

What did the research involve?

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:

  • "When my mobile phone alerts me to indicate new messages, I cannot resist checking them"
  • "I often think about calls or messages I might receive on my mobile phone"
  • "I feel like I use my mobile phone too much"

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:

  • cellphone/smartphone
  • television
  • computer
  • tablet
  • iPod
  • video game console

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:

  • externalising included items such as "can't sit still, restless or hyperactive", "easily frustrated" and "temper tantrums or hot temper"
  • internalising included items such as "whining", "sulks a lot" and "feelings are easily hurt"

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.

What were the basic results?

  • On average, mothers and fathers reported about two devices as interfering in their interactions with their child at least once or more on a typical day.
  • Parents reporting problematic use of digital technology (40% of mothers and 32% of fathers) was correlated with technoference with their child.
  • Perceived technoference in mother-child interactions was linked to child behavioural problems – both externalising and internalising behaviour – as rated by mothers and fathers.
  • However, perceived technoference in father-child interactions was not linked to behavioural issues.
  • Only 11% of parents reported that technoference did not occur and 48% reported three or more times on a typical day.
  • Demographics, depression and child age and media use did not alter the results.

How did the researchers interpret the results?

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:

  • The participants were almost all white, had a high level of education and were from the US. Therefore the findings might not be relevant to other populations.
  • The survey involved self-reporting, which may be subject to bias. For example, parents may under- or over-estimate their use of digital technology or might be unwilling to honestly answer questions about their child's behaviour if they fear it would cast them in a bad light.
  • As it was cross-sectional, it only provides a snapshot of parenting and child behaviours, which might change over time.
  • Only children under the age of five were included. Technoference might have different effects on behavioural outcomes in older children – for example, it might encourage use of technology in a positive way. Further research would be needed to determine if outcomes are positive or negative.

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.

Read more advice about keeping children active.

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