WEDNESDAY, June 20, 2018 -- Parents who take refuge in their smartphones when their kids throw a tantrum may, in the long run, make matters worse, a new study suggests.
The study, of 183 couples with young children, found that stressed-out parents often turned to their electronic devices when dealing with their kids. And when that was a pattern, their kids' behavior typically worsened over the next several months.
Researchers said the findings do not prove smartphones are to blame.
But they also said the study raises concerns about what some researchers call "technoference" -- where parents are less present for their children because digital devices are constantly vying for their attention.
"Young children can be hard to 'read' as it is," said researcher Dr. Jenny Radesky. "It's really difficult to read them when you're distracted by something else. In general, when you're toggling between different things, you're not as good at any of them."
Children, in turn, get frustrated when mom and dad appear to be withdrawing from them into a device. "They may learn that they have to act out to get attention," said Radesky, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School, in Ann Arbor.
However, that doesn't necessarily mean smartphones and other devices are the root of the problem, according to Yamalis Diaz, a clinical assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU Langone Health, in New York City.
Parents who are having trouble managing their children's behavior -- for various reasons -- may be the ones most likely to constantly check their phones, said Diaz, who was not involved in the study.
Device use, she explained, may be a "symptom" of a broader issue.
That said, there are reasons to be concerned about today's mobile technology.
Parents have long turned to media -- a TV show or a book -- to get a break from their kids, Radesky said.
But mobile devices can interfere with parent-child interactions anytime, anywhere. Plus, they are simply more absorbing than books or TV, because they "contain your whole life," Radesky added.
"It's your email, it's your work, it's the news," she said. "There are social demands, because you're expected to be responsive to other people on social media."
Diaz agreed that the pull of mobile technology is an issue. "We are concerned about decreased quality in parent-child interactions because of technology use -- in both parents and kids," she said.
But it's not just that life demands are forcing parents to be on their phones: As the study suggests, many parents may use devices as a buffer against parenting stress.
If you're home all day with the kids, Radesky said, it can be a relief to "see what's going on in the adult world."
However, Diaz said, if parents are habitually "hiding in their phones" because of stress, they need to figure out the true source of that stress.
The study, published online recently in the journal Pediatric Research, involved couples with a child younger than 6. Parents were surveyed three times over six months about their device use during time with their kids; levels of parenting stress; and whether their children had behavioral issues like restlessness, being easily frustrated, or throwing temper tantrums.
Almost all parents said their device use interrupted time with their kids at least once a day, the researchers found.
In general, the study found, parents were more stressed when their kids had more behavior problems. Those stressed parents were more likely to use devices during family time. And parents' device use, in turn, was linked to worsening behavioral problems over time.
It's not that parents need to ditch their phones, or be "100 percent responsive" to their kids all the time, according to Radesky. But having device-free family time each day is crucial.
Diaz agreed. "Have some concentrated, quality time together to show your child that you're present and responsive," she advised.
It's also wise, Radesky said, to "build some self-awareness" around your device use: For example, keep track of how much time you spend on phones and computers -- since it can be easy to lose yourself for an hour or more.
Radesky also suggested thinking about the types of content that stress you out, or can make you irritable with your kids -- whether that's work emails, social media or reading the news. Then try avoiding those "triggers" when your kids need your attention.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has advice on family media use.
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