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Plugged-in parents linked to ill-behaved kids

Parents who are constantly checking their phones for texts, e-mails and cat videos may be more likely to have kids who misbehave than people who are able to step away from their screens, a small U.S. study suggests.

Researchers examined survey data from parents in 170 families with young children and found mothers and fathers who were more likely to report being distracted by technology during playtime were also more likely to see behaviour problems in their kids.

"Prior studies have shown us that some parents can be quite absorbed by their devices and that when they are absorbed, it seems like it is difficult for children to get their attention," said lead study author Brandon McDaniel of Illinois State University in Normal.

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"No prior studies however had linked parent technology use, especially use that interrupts or interferes with parent-child interactions, with child behaviour problems specifically," McDaniel added by e-mail. "What is especially new here is that even minor, everyday intrusions of technology that are likely happening to all of us that have and use smartphones can begin to influence our children's behaviour."

For the study, researchers analyzed data from surveys completed separately by 168 mothers and 165 fathers from two-parent households.

Among other things, the surveys asked about how often smartphones, tablets, laptops and other technology disrupted family time with interruptions such as checking phone messages during meals or answering texts in the middle of conversations. Parents were also asked to rate how problematic their personal-device use was based on how often they worried about calls or texts and whether they thought they used mobile devices too much.

While both mothers and fathers thought technology use distracted them from interactions with their children at least once a day, the women perceived their phone use as a bigger parenting problem than the men.

About 48 per cent of parents reported technology interruptions at least three times a day, while 24 per cent said this happened twice a day and 17 per cent said it occurred once daily. Only 11 per cent said technology never interrupted family time, the study team reports in Child Development.

Researchers also asked parents to rate the frequency of child behaviour issues within the past two months by answering questions about how often their children whined, sulked, easily got frustrated, had tantrums or showed signs of hyperactivity or restlessness.

After adjusting for other factors that can influence kids' behaviour such as parent income, education level and other family dynamics, researchers found an association between parents' belief that their technology use was disruptive and parents reporting that kids had behaviour issues such as tantrums, whining or hyperactivity.

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The study wasn't a controlled experiment designed to prove how or if parents' technology use changes the way kids behave.

Other limitations include the lack of clinical data or reports from teachers or other adults to verify that kids had behaviour problems.

It's also possible that parents who turn to technology more often during family time are doing this to take a break from kids with behaviour issues, said Dr. Sam Wass, a developmental psychologist at the University of East London in Britain who wasn't involved in the study.

"It could be that children who are naturally more restless or hyperactive are more likely to have parents who 'need a break' from their children from time to time – and it is this that causes the association," Wass said by e-mail. "This link is very far from proven."

Still, parents worried about how technology disrupts their family time can try to carve out periods of each day when the devices go away and they focus only on their kids, said Larry Rosen, professor emeritus at California State University, Dominguez Hills.

"Children crave a connection to their parents and learn from their parents' behaviours," Rosen, who wasn't involved in the study, said by e-mail. "Constantly checking your phone is going to have a negative impact on this connection."

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