How your phone might give your kid a short attention span

  • TECH
  • Sunday, 08 May 2016

A woman uses her mobile phone outside a branch of UK retailer Phones 4U advertising the new Blackberry Z10 in central London, January 31, 2013. REUTERS/Andrew Winning

Parents who turn to smartphones and tablets to break up the tedium of caring for an infant around the clock may be teaching their babies to have a short attention span, a small study suggests. 

That’s because when parents stop focusing on playtime with their baby to concentrate on other things like tiny screens, their infants may mimic this behaviour by also focusing on toys and other objects for shorter periods of time. 

In other words, babies learn to focus better when their parents aren’t distracted, said lead study author Chen Yu, a brain science researcher at Indiana University at Bloomington. 

“If parents join a child’s attention on a toy object, children are more likely to show longer attention on the target object compared with cases that parents don’t show any attention or interest,” Yu said by email. 

This works best when parents follow their baby’s lead, Yu added. 

“If parents try to lead by getting the child’s attention on the object of the parent’s interest, this effort may not be successful,” Yu said. “But if parents just follow the child’s attention/interest it is easier to be in joint attention with their child.” 

To understand how parental distraction influences babies’ attention spans, Yu and colleagues outfitted 36 infant-parent pairs with head-mounted gadgets that tracked their eye movements to measure how long they focused on different objects. 

The babies were around 11 to 13 months old. 

Researchers put parents and babies in a room with several engaging toys and then sat back to see what happened when the parents didn’t get any instruction on how to interact with their kids. 

Generally, care givers fell into two groups: those who let infants direct the course of play and those who tried to guide babies toward specific toys. 

When parents looked where their kids did, they typically both paid attention to the same object for more than 3.6 seconds. Then, the infant’s attention lingered on the same object for another 2.3 seconds after their parent turned away. 

While that may not seem like much time, the babies whose parents followed their lead focused on objects for about four times longer than did infants whose care givers’ were quickly distracted. 

Babies whose parents made little effort to focus on what their kids were playing with during the study had even shorter attention spans than the children whose parents focused briefly before looking away. 

Beyond its small size, other limitations of the study include the lack of information on other parent and caregiver behaviours that may shape children's attention spans, the authors note in the journal Current Biology

Talking about toys during playtime and reading stories about toys, for example, may increase young children's interest in these toys and help them focus on these objects for longer periods of time, they write. 

The paper also didn't address how a parent's own history of attention deficit or hyperactivity disorders might influence the way their children learn to focus on objects. 

The study only looks at how well children follow what their parents look at second by second, and not at every way that kids mimic the focus they see in care givers, noted Dr Sam Wass, a researcher at the University of East London and the University of Cambridge in the UK who wasn't involved in the study. 

"This paper isn't looking at attention span per se," Wass said by e-mail. "Rather, it is about how second-by-second changes in a parent's attention influence a child's attention. So if I choose to pay attention to nice things, my baby is more likely to pay attention to them too." — Reuters

Article type: metered
User Type: anonymous web
User Status:
Campaign ID: 1
Cxense type: free
User access status: 3

Next In Tech News

Bitcoin rises 5.6% to $49,337.72
Tesla crash victim lauded 'full self-driving' in videos on Tiktok
Fifteen apps parents should be aware of: Are any of these on your child’s phone?
My dad wants to invest in Bitcoin. Should he?
Army of fake fans boosts China’s messaging on Twitter
US Feds say a lack of reporting poses barrier to cyber defence
As of iOS 14.4, Apple lets you get more volume out of your iPhone
Need a professional photo? In pandemic times, you can do it yourself
Biden revokes Trump order that sought to limit social media firms' protections
Stock photography: Tips for turning your photos into cash

Stories You'll Enjoy