Could Checking Your Email During Dinnertime Turn Your Kid Into A Jerk?

Hold the phone?

Originally Published: 
dad holding baby and checking iphone

Parents may be hurting their kids by loving their iPhones too much, a new study suggests. Researchers found that behavior problems in children, such as oversensitivity, hot tempers, hyperactivity, and whining were associated with parents who, even infrequently, interrupted family time to mess with their smartphones and tablets. But before you throw your Android into the ocean, it’s important to note that the results far from definitive.

“In our study, we controlled for a variety of factors, such as parent stress, depression, coparenting quality, and child screen use,” coauthor Brandon McDaniel, a family researcher at Illinois State University, told Fatherly. “This seems to suggest that there is something meaningful here, even though the data is cross-sectional.”

Rather than upending the field, then, McDaniel’s work should be seen as an interesting contribution to the growing body of evidence that increased digital technology use can impact parent-child relationships. Prior studies have shown that children are more likely to display attention-seeking behavior when their parents are consumed in technology and a 2016 animal study found that distracted rats permanently impaired their offspring’s ability to experience pleasure.

For the recent study, published in Child Development, McDaniel and his team asked 170 two-parent families about their use of smartphones, tablets, laptops, and other technology, and whether the devices ever interrupted family time. For instance, did the parents ever check their phones during mealtime or playtime? Overall, more than half of the parents reported three or more technology interruptions per day. Only 11 percent reported no technological interruptions.

When McDaniel and colleagues controlled for parenting stress, depressive symptoms, income, parent education, and co-parenting quality, all which have shown to be predictive of child behavior, they still noticed a strong association between so-called “technoference” and children acting out — but only for mothers. Interestingly, mothers also reported that their technology use was more problematic than that of the fathers in the study. Score one point for dads. Still, since the survey reflects a correlation and not causation, the reverse conclusion is also possible — it could be that children with behavioral problems stress out their parents so much that these adults are more likely to retreat into their iPhones.

More study is certainly necessary. But in the meantime McDaniel, a parent himself, says the study inspired him to unplug around his kids, just in case. “I want my children to know that they are important to me, so I do my best to put my phone or other device down whenever they enter the room,” he says. “That way they know they have my undivided attention.”

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