As more and more of us admit to being unable to imagine our lives without a smartphone, a new study investigates the impact of technology on parenting and child behavior.

little girl with mum on phoneShare on Pinterest
New research suggests that parental use of technology might lead to bad behavior in children.

The American Psychological Association (APA) report that in 2015, almost half of people in the United States said that they could not imagine life without a smartphone.

According to their data, almost every U.S. adult (99 percent) owns one or more electronic device, including desktop computers, smartphones, tablets, and televisions. Additionally, the amount of people who use social media has risen from 7 percent in 2005 to 65 percent in 2015.

The APA cite multiple studies that have shown how the use of technology negatively impacts adults' mental and physical well-being.

But what is the effect of technology on children? More specifically, how does parents' use of technology affect their children's behavior? Researchers from the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children's Hospital (Mott) in Ann Arbor, and Illinois State University in Normal, set out to examine this.

The study co-authors are Dr. Jenny Radesky, a child behavior expert and pediatrician at Mott, and Brandon T. McDaniel, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences at Illinois State University.

The new research was published in the journal Child Development.

Studying the link between 'technoference' and children's bad behavior

Previous studies have found a correlation between poor parent-child interaction and extensive parental use of digital technology. However, to the authors' knowledge, no studies have yet examined technology's impact on child behavior.

The new study asks whether or not heavy use of digital technology by the parent correlates with technology-related interruptions in the interaction between the parent and the child. This kind of interference is coined "technoference" by McDaniel, and the study examines whether there is a correlation between technoference and child behavioral issues.

Radesky and McDaniel examined reports from 170 two-parent U.S. families, whose children were aged just over 3 years, on average.

The researchers asked mothers and fathers about their use of smartphones, laptops, and tablets, and other technological devices.

The study looked at how these devices interrupted the time spent together in the family, from checking texts during dinner, playtime, or other activities, to conversations that parents engage in with their children.

Parents were asked to rate their children's behavior over the past 2 months, reporting on how often their children whined, sulked, showed signs of hyperactivity, were irritable, or easily became frustrated.

Radesky and McDaniel adjusted for various factors such as signs of stress or depression in the parents, the income and level of education, and the quality of co-parenting - that is, how supportive parents were of each other.

Technological interruptions may lead to 'child problem behaviors'

Overall, most parents admitted that technology routinely interrupted their interactions with their children, at least once every day.

More specifically, 48 percent of parents reported three or more daily instances of technoference, 24 percent said that technology interrupted them twice each day, and 17 percent said that it happened only once per day.

Only 11 percent of those interviewed said that no technology interruptions took place.

The study revealed that even low - or what is considered "normal" - levels of technoference correlated with a higher level of child behavior issues such as oversensitivity, irritability, hyperactivity, and whining.

Although the "results suggest that technological interruptions are associated with child problem behaviors," the authors concede that their study is observational and cross-sectional, meaning that it analyzes connections between groups of people at a given point in time, rather than over an extended period.

The authors call for more longitudinal studies, which follow the same participants over a longer period of time, to confirm the results.

"We can't assume a direct connection between parents' technology use and child behavior, but these findings help us better understand the relationship.

We know that parents' responsiveness to their kids changes when they are using mobile technology and that their device use may be associated with less-than-ideal interactions with their children. It's really difficult to toggle attention between all of the important and attention-grabbing information contained in these devices, with social and emotional information from our children, and process them both effectively at the same time."

Dr. Jenny Radesky

McDaniel also weighs in, adding that "it's too early to draw implications that could be used in clinical practice, but our findings contribute to growing literature showing an association between greater digital technology use and potential relationship dysfunction between parents and their children."

While the authors acknowledge the relaxing and de-stressing effect that technology may have on the parents, they also recommend that mothers and fathers set aside some smartphone-free time, during which they can focus more on interacting with their children.

Learn how sleep disturbance and social media use are linked.