University of Auckland: Devices distract parents

Research from the University of Auckland’s School of Psychology, found that receiving audible notifications on phones could be more distracting for parents than talking on the phone, sending texts or checking their messages. Parents who frequently received audible notifications tended to become more directive towards their child.

What is most interesting about our findings is that there seemed to be a “carry-over” effect, where the distraction caused by receiving audible notifications seemed to result in parents being directive even when they did not have access to their phones and their phones were not in use,” says study leader lead author, doctoral student, Maria Corkin.

Associate Professor Henderson says the novel finding is important because we know that a parent being more directive towards their child affects that child’s ability to expand their vocabulary and learn new words.

The study, conducted at the University’s Early Learning Lab, involved 43 infants aged around 20 months and their parents, who were shown into a small room where there was access to a jigsaw puzzle, plastic stacking cups and a wire bead maze, and were encouraged to play with the toys as they would at home.

The parent-infant interaction was video recorded and then rated by two research assistants on a scale of 1 – 5 on a range of measures such as ‘joint coordinated attention’ when the parent and infant are focused on the same object, or ‘scaffolding’ which is when the parent is supporting their infant in developing and practising new skills.

Parents were also rated on directiveness which is when a parent gives a child verbal or non-verbal direction to the child on what they should do. This form of interacting with children is thought to negatively affect vocabulary development.

Participants also filled out a questionnaire after the in-room session on their general use of their mobile devices, including how many notifications they receive on average per hour, number of times they check their phone and how much screen time they have when with their child.
Parents were also asked how frequently they made a conscious decision to put their phone away when with their child.

The most important finding of the study was that parents who reported frequently receiving audible notifications on their phones tended to be more directive, and as a result their child’s vocabulary was likely to be smaller.

Results also showed that parents used screens, on average, 23 per cent of the time that they were with their child and 34.9 per cent of infants were exposed to background TV half the time or more.

On average parents reported they received 1.06 audible notifications per hour on their mobile devices and they checked mobiles 3.26 times per hour on average. On average, parents estimated spending 10.21 minutes per hour on their phone or device.

The study also found that infants with smaller vocabularies were more likely to have parents who reported co-using screens with their infants half or less of the time compared to infants with parents who used screens with their children most or all the time.

The study also found that when the TV is on in the home, it may impair parents’ ability to fully engage with and ascertain children’s needs.

The researchers say the number of parents and infants in the study was limited by Covid-19 restrictions but still provided interesting insights into how parents’ use of their mobile devices may influence the way they interact with their children.

“Our findings support the possibility that interference by mobile devices, which is referred to as technoference, may influence parent-child interactions even when the parent is not actually using their phone but has audible notifications turned on,” say the study authors.

“By increasing understanding about parents’ technology use and capturing the direct and indirect ways that it can impact early childhood development, our study adds to the growing body of research into the different ways that screen media could affect children’s development in today’s media environment, where mobile technologies have become a part of everyday life.”


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