There' s been a lot of finger-pointing around the perils of kids' screen use — particularly when it comes to distractibility. In fact, this link has been given a name, “technoference,” coined as a way to identify the many ways technology interferes with our attention.

A study casts doubt on the emphasis given the tech connection's importance in children. Instead, the new research proposes that the problems of distractibility can come from any source — not just from digital devices.

If a parent is not fully engaged when they interact with their child, it will negatively impact parent-child communications.

In fact, it is often the case that parents' own distraction sets the stage for kids checking out. “…[W]hen parents are distracted, the quality and quantity of parent-child interaction is impaired compared to when parents are not being distracted,” Nevena Dimitrova, a researcher at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Western Switzerland, said in a press release. Dimitrova was the principal investigator of a study that found it is distraction itself, and not primarily screens, that is the problem: “This was regardless of if that distraction came from a digital or non-digital activity.”

Fifty parent-child pairs, in which children were 22 months old on average, played together for 10 minutes. Participant pairs were divided into three groups. In the first group, there was no disruption. In the second group, after five minutes of play, the parent was given a questionnaire to fill out on paper. In the third group, after five minutes, the parent was instructed to fill out the same questionnaire using a tablet. Parents who filled out the questionnaire were instructed to keep interacting with their kids.

Not surprisingly, those parents who filled out the questionnaire were less responsive to their children's communication signals, and likewise, the kids showed lower levels of social involvement toward their folks.

The results did reveal something surprising: despite the warnings about how devices disturb our attention, technoference didn't affect the parent-child interactions more negatively than non-digital distractions. It turns out that using a pen and paper can be just as distracting when it comes to parents and children's attention. “We interpret this finding — that was equally surprising for us — as the possibility that screens are so ubiquitous nowadays that young children might be becoming used to the reality of seeing their parents use screens,” said Dimitrova.

Parent-child interaction is best when parents are not distracted at all, the researchers say. This may be of special significance for those parents who have found it tough to bond with their children. Make a plan to simply spend time being with your kids with no distractions for periods of time.

While the media has been raising the alarm about the risks of screen use in the presence of children, the researchers point out that it has been less enthusiastic about research that shows there are some positive effects associated with the use of digital devices in parenting.

“This study highlights how important it is to rely on scientific evidence, rather than public opinion, about screen use. We see that it's not screens per se that are detrimental to the quality of parent-child interaction,” Dimitrova concluded. “Instead, it seems to be the fact that the parent is not fully engaged in the interaction that negatively impacts parent-child communications.”

That said, the researchers point out that their research is just one study. In addition, everyday parent-child interaction is different from an experimental situation. They suggest that studies in a more natural environment could lead to different results.

Despite warnings about how devices disturb our attention, technoference didn't affect the parent-child interactions more negatively than using a pen and paper did.

In any case, it's always a good idea to let your kids know they are being seen and heard. When you want to show your kids that you are paying attention to them and want them to reciprocate, the Family Institute at Northwestern University suggests these three activities:

  • Talk to your children during dinner
  • Play more games with them
  • Read stories aloud

Distraction — from any source — is the enemy of attention. Do your part to nurture attention by actively reducing distraction, especially when around your children.

The study is published in Frontiers in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.