Studies have shown that parents who check their mobile phones constantly will raise children with short attention spans. Why does this affect the natural ability of children to sustain attention? What impact does this have on success later in life (e.g. learning a language & problem-solving)? How can parents help improve their children’s attention span in creative and non-technological ways?
WORDS DR NICOLA DAVIES
Do you constantly check your cell phone for email and text messages? Is “mummy and me” time with your infant interrupted by phone calls and the chirping of your device, as it announces a new text or email? Does your cell phone sit next to you at story time, bath time, and bedtime?
Most mothers, whether new or experienced, young or middle-aged, will respond “yes!” unanimously to some variation of these questions. In the past decade, cell phones have become ever-present in our world. They occupy cup holders alongside steaming Lattes and live rent-free in pockets, purses, and diaper bags. These electronic “nomads” follow us everywhere, including such intimate spaces as changing rooms, nightstands, and delivery rooms, where we welcome our precious newborns into the world. We may even find cell phones in prams, nestled cosily beside napping infants!
While cell phones have become essential for communication in today’s technology-focused culture, their ubiquitous presence and the constant attention we give them distract us from the most important people in our lives: our children. In addition, repeated cell phone “checking” does more than rob busy parents of precious time with their families.
Parents who devote too much attention to their electronic devices
may also negatively impact their children’s developing attention
spans and model potentially unhealthy behaviour.
Parent-Infant Eye Contact: The Detriments of Distraction
Infant-parent eye contact is widely established as a crucial aspect of parent-child bonding and as a marker of healthy attachment. From our first bleary-eyed moments together, infants and parents establish a secure connection through the loving gaze, which is a primary means of communication and connection during a child’s first year of life. The steady gaze of a parent signals to a vulnerable infant that they are loved and safe in the world. On the other hand, by looking into their child’s eyes, parents learn to perceive the subtle cues their child sends through facial expressions and body language. Unfortunately, this essential bonding activity is disrupted when parents look away from their child to check their phones or respond to incoming calls or texts. Even the sounds a device makes present a distraction.
Recent studies also show that parents who are distracted—whether by smartphones or other interruptions—are more likely to raise children with shorter attention spans. Without the ability to focus for longer periods of time, children may face challenges to develop socially and academically. Considering the constantly ringing, vibrating, and chirping electronic devices, the potential for parental distraction is great.
In a 2016 study conducted by researchers at Indiana University, it was found that the quality and duration of parent-child eye contact is a key factor in the development of a child’s attention span, which is an important indicator of success later in life. Since infants learn to cultivate their attention spans partly as a result of social interactions, optimal development is reliant upon the ability of parents and caregivers to remain focused and engaged. Unfortunately, in our technology-centered culture, even the most dedicated parents may struggle to provide their kids with the stimulation they require to develop longer attention spans.
Children Need Parents Who Are Present and Engaged
According to the Indiana study, children learn to focus their attention for longer periods of time when parents and caregivers mirror their child’s gaze on a particular object, such as a toy. This teaches the child how to sustain their attention span. If parents are not “present” due to checking cell phones—even momentarily—they miss key opportunities to engage their child in behaviour critical for the developing brain. Parents who are physically present but who look away from their child to check their cell phone ultimately impede their child’s ability to learn how to focus their attention. Since most parents are constantly accompanied by smartphones, momentary lapses in attention are often routine.
While the potential to negatively impact our children’s developing attention is great in our technology-focused culture, there are many easy ways parents can create environments that encourage their child’s capacity to sustain their developing attention span and which support self-regulation of electronic devices.
Model Healthy Use of Technology
As our children grow to an age at which they begin to use devices of their own—for some children this is as early as two to three years old—it is crucial for parents to model self-regulation regarding their own use of devices. Although parents often have rules regarding cell phone use for their children, the most important boundaries are those parents create for themselves. When parents regulate their own use, they model the behaviour they wish to observe and enable critical opportunities for attention span-building activities. Fortunately, developing and implementing household guidelines for responsible use of technology can be fun and tailored to individual needs and lifestyle.