Smartphone use by parents may influence the attention span of their children?

I do have my reservations about this study, but it has an interesting thesis: based on eye-tracking software the study sees – pun intented – a connection between caregiver focus and key cognitive development indicator in infants. Or to put it more bluntly: caregivers whose eyes wander during playtime — due to distractions such as smartphones or other technology, for example — may raise children with shorter attention spans.

But if we look at the actual study, what is the essence:

  • They  used head-mounted eye tracking to record gaze data in child-parent free play
  • Infants extend their sustained attention when a parent attends to the same object
  • Parent-child social interactions influence the development of sustained attention
  • The development of seemingly non-social competencies depends on social experience

So, which reservations do I have:

  • the study didn’t look at smartphone use at all
  • a connection hides a correlation in this case

Actually, I think this is a great study that again shows how important responsive parenting is. Ok, something that we’ve known for quite a while now. A bit less spectacular, maybe.

From the press release:

The work, which appears online today in the journal Current Biology, is the first to show a direct connection between how long a caregiver looks at an object and how long an infant’s attention remains focused on that same object.

“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.”

Yu is a professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. Linda Smith, IU Distinguished Professor and Chancellor’s Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences, is co-author on the paper.

“Historically, psychologists regarded attention as an property of individual development,” Smith said. “Our study is one of the first to consider attention as impacted by social interaction. It really appears to be an activity performed by two social partners since our study shows one individual’s attention significantly influence another’s.”

Thanks to head-mounted cameras worn by both caregivers and infants in the study, IU scientists got a first-person point of view on parents and children playing together in an environment that closely resembled a typical play session at home or day care. The technology also allowed the parents and children to play with physical toys. A typical eye-tracking study of children would involve manipulating objects on a screen.

Caregivers were given no instructions before engaging with children to ensure the psychologists got an unfiltered view of their interactions.

Generally, Yu said, caregivers fell into two major groups: those who let the infants direct the course of their play and those who attempted to forcefully guide the infants’ interest toward specific toys.

“A lot of the parents were really trying too hard,” he said. “They were trying to show off their parenting skills, holding out toys for their kids and naming the objects. But when you watch the camera footage, you can actually see the children’s eyes wandering to the ceilings or over their parents’ shoulders — they’re not paying attention at all.”

The caregivers who were most successful at sustaining the children’s attention were those who “let the child lead.” These caregivers waited until they saw the children express interest in a toy and then jumped in to expand that interest by naming the object and encouraging play.

“The responsive parents were sensitive to their children’s interests and then supported their attention,” Yu said. “We found they didn’t even really need to try to redirect where the children were looking.”

The gains in attention for children in this group were significant. In cases where infants and caregivers paid attention to the same object for over 3.6 seconds, the infant’s attention lingered 2.3 seconds longer on average on the same object even after the caregiver’s gaze turned away. This extra time works out to nearly four times longer compared to infants whose caregivers’ attention strayed relatively quickly.

The impact of a few seconds here and there may seem small. But when they are magnified over a play session — and those play sessions occur over months of daily interaction during a critical stage in mental development — the outcomes grow significantly, Yu said. A number of other studies tracking the influence of sustained attention in children from ages 1 through grade school show consistently that longer attention spans at an early age are a strong predictor of later achievement.

“Showing that what a parent pays attention to minute by minute and second by second actually influences what a child is paying attention to may seem intuitive, but social influences on attention are potentially very important and ignored by most scientists,” said Sam Wass, a research scientist at the University of Cambridge whose commentary on the study appears in the same journal. “Chen Yu and Linda Smith’s work in this area in recent years has been hugely influential.”

The shortest attention spans in the study were observed in a third group, in which caregivers displayed extremely low engagement with children while playing. These distracted caregivers tended to sit back and not play along, or simply look elsewhere during the exercise.

“When you’ve got a someone who isn’t responsive to a child’s behavior,” Yu said, “it could be a real red flag for future problems.”

Abstract of the study:

The ability to sustain attention is a major achievement in human development and is generally believed to be the developmental product of increasing self-regulatory and endogenous (i.e., internal, top-down, voluntary) control over one’s attention and cognitive systems [ 1–5 ]. Because sustained attention in late infancy is predictive of future development, and because early deficits in sustained attention are markers for later diagnoses of attentional disorders [ 6 ], sustained attention is often viewed as a constitutional and individual property of the infant [ 6–9 ]. However, humans are social animals; developmental pathways for seemingly non-social competencies evolved within the social group and therefore may be dependent on social experience [ 10–13 ]. Here, we show that social context matters for the duration of sustained attention episodes in one-year-old infants during toy play. Using head-mounted eye tracking to record moment-by-moment gaze data from both parents and infants, we found that when the social partner (parent) visually attended to the object to which infant attention was directed, infants, after the parent’s look, extended their duration of visual attention to the object. Looks to the same object by two social partners is a well-studied phenomenon known as joint attention, which has been shown to be critical to early learning and to the development of social skills [ 14, 15 ]. The present findings implicate joint attention in the development of the child’s own sustained attention and thus challenge the current understanding of the origins of individual differences in sustained attention, providing a new and potentially malleable developmental pathway to the self-regulation of attention.

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4 Comments

Filed under At work, Research

4 responses to “Smartphone use by parents may influence the attention span of their children?

  1. Mariek Vanden Abeele

    Interesting study, thanks for posting this! I have recently completed a study in which we videotaped parent-toddler interactions in the household, to see if smartphone use hampers responsiveness. And yes, it did… hope to get the work out soon, and will keep you posted.

  2. Confession time.
    Although my kids are mostly grown now, sadly, I am THAT parent. Interestingly, my device was a book, and my nose was always in it while my kids were little.
    Just don’t blame the smartphone. It’s a character issue.

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