Children may grow up with shorter attention spans if their parents get distracted by smartphones and other technology during playtime, say psychologists.

Research in the journal Current Biology shows there is a direct correlation between how long a parent, or caregiver, looks at an object being played with by a young child and how long the infant remains focused on the same object. Glancing at your phone during playtime could mean your child getting distracted too, the researchers say.

Professor Chen Yu from Indiana University in the US who led the study says these early years are important for future development. “The ability of children to sustain attention is known as a strong indicator for later success in areas such as language acquisition, problem-solving and other key cognitive development milestones,” he explains.

Source: Chen Yu/Indiana University

The researchers tested the theory that one person’s attention can be influenced by another person by using head-mounted cameras worn by both caregiver and infant.

This allowed the scientists to get a first-person perspective on parents and children playing together in an environment similar to a typical play session at home or in a nursery. Parents were not told how to behave during the sessions so that the psychologists got a realistic snapshot of what went on.

They found that the caregivers fell into two main groups: those who let the infants direct the course of their play and those who attempted to forcefully guide the infants’ interest toward specific toys.

“A lot of the parents were really trying too hard,” he says. “They were trying to show off their parenting skills, holding out toys for their kids and naming the objects. But when you watch the camera footage, you can actually see the children’s eyes wandering to the ceilings or over their parents’ shoulders – they’re not paying attention at all.”

By contrast, the caregivers who were most successful at sustaining the children’s attention were those who “let the child lead.” The scientists noticed that these caregivers waited until they saw the children express interest in a toy and then named the toy and encouraged them to play with it in order to widen their interest.

When caregivers took the time to look at a toy for a sustained period of time, this was mirrored in the attention paid to it by the young child. For instance, when infant and caregiver looked at the object for more than 3.6 seconds, the infant paid attention to it 2.3 seconds longer, even when the adult had looked away.

The psychologists say these extra seconds may not amount to much on their own, but when spread out over many play sessions they can amount to quite a lot of extra time spent paying attention. According to Professor Wu, there are studies suggesting that attention skills during this early period can influence higher achievements at school.

“Showing that what a parent pays attention to minute by minute and second by second actually influences what a child is paying attention to may seem intuitive, but social influences on attention are potentially very important and ignored by most scientists,” write University of Cambridge research scientist Sam Wass and psychologist Victoria Leong, whose commentary on the study appears in the same journal.

This shows how important parents need to give attention to their children. It creates a lasting communication and relationship between you and your child and helps in the upbringing of that child.



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Cynthia Isuekebhor