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June 1 2017

Ever heard of Technoference? It’s the term used to describe ‘interference in personal relationships due to technology such as smartphones, computers, tablets, and other electrical devices’ (Joel Kimmel) and its impact is most commonly talked about in relation to romantic partnerships. So it’s interesting to see research papers now appearing about technoference and parent-child relationships. And the news isn’t great ...

Questions are starting to be asked if some problem behaviours in childhood could be to do with parents spending too much time on their smartphones or tablets. And at least one study in the States found ‘heavy digital technology use by parents could be associated with child behaviour issues.’

An article by Science Daily reporting on the study said this:

“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. Interruptions could be as simple as checking phone messages during mealtime, playtime and routine activities or conversations with their children.

While more research is needed, the study suggests 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.”

Senior author, Jenny Radesky - a child behaviour expert and paediatrician reported, “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." (

Another study reported on by Science Daily last year showed a correlation between how long a caregiver looks at an object and how long an infant's attention remains focused on that same object. This is important because it suggests that ‘caregivers whose eyes wander during playtime, due to distractions such as smartphones or other technology, for example may raise children with shorter attention spans’.

"The ability of children to sustain attention is known as a strong indicator for later success in areas such as language acquisition, problem-solving and other key cognitive development milestones," said Chen Yu, who led the study. "Caregivers who appear distracted or whose eyes wander a lot while their children play appear to negatively impact infants' burgeoning attention spans during a key stage of development."

So what can we do to lessen the heavy impact of our own device use on our kids? The researchers advise parents to try to carve out designated times to put away the devices and focus all attention on their kids. And respected organisations such as Zero To Three recommend daily ‘unplugged’ time. This might be best at typical family times like mealtimes and bathtimes, or it might be a set time just for play. The important part is that the device goes away, not tucked behind a cushion and glanced at from time to time.

To finish, the last word goes to one researcher who (thankfully) said, “It may not be realistic, nor is it necessary, to ban technology use all together at home. But setting boundaries can help parents keep smartphones and other mobile technology from interrupting quality time with their kids." And given this can affect not only their behaviour but their attention span and longer term life outcomes too, this seems to make a lot of sense.