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The researchers say that the best types of parent-child interactions are the ones that are entirely uninterrupted.

SCIENCE & TECH: Distracted parents are making parent-child relationships worse

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It’s time to stop blaming our phones. 

Screen time isn’t making child-parent relationships worse, say researchers. In fact, it’s just distractions in general. 

Researchers in Switzerland analyzed what they refer to as “technoference” — that is, interference caused by digital devices — to learn whether distractions from sources other than phones were actually just as harmful to parent-child relationships. 

What they found was that the source of the distraction ultimately didn’t matter. Kids just wanted their parents’ undivided attention. And when they didn’t get it, whether because a parent was looking at their phone, or doing some other nondigital activity, the relationship suffered in similar ways.


The researchers say that the best types of parent-child interactions are the ones that are entirely uninterrupted. Getty Images

“In this study, we show that when parents are distracted, the quality and quantity of parent-child interaction is impaired compared to when parents are not being distracted,” Nevena Dimitrova, a principal study author and researcher at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Western Switzerland, said in a statement. “This was regardless of if that distraction came from a digital or a non-digital activity.”


Screen time isn’t making child-parent relationships worse, say researchers. In fact, it’s just distractions in general.
Screen time isn’t making child-parent relationships worse, say researchers. In fact, it’s just distractions in general. Getty Images/iStockphoto

For the study, published Tuesday in Frontiers in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, scientists tested 50 parent-child pairs split into three groups.

In the first group, parents were instructed to play with their kids (who were 22 months old on average) for 10 minutes. In the second group, parents were told to play with their kids, but after five minutes, they were given a pen-and-paper questionnaire.

In the third group, parents were given the same questionnaire, but they filled it out on a tablet. The “distracted” groups were instructed to continue to try to play with their kids as they completed the questionnaire. 

The results showed that children who were part of the “distracted” groups displayed lower levels of social involvement toward their parents, and the parents were less sensitive to their children’s communications signals. 

However, the “technoference” — parents using the tablet instead of pen and paper — made no difference.

“We interpret this finding — that was equally surprising for us — as the possibility that screens are so ubiquitous nowadays that young children might be becoming used to the reality of seeing their parents use screens,” Dimitrova said.

The researchers say that the best types of parent-child interactions are the ones that are entirely uninterrupted. And, they point to a “moral panic” around screen use, which they say is somewhat unjustified. 

“We see that it’s not screens per se that are detrimental to the quality of parent-child interaction,” Dimitrova explained. “Instead, it seems to be the fact that the parent is not fully engaged in the interaction that negatively impacts parent-child communication.”



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