From the Journals

Technology use by parents may worsen children’s behavior



Digital technology use by parents during family activities may exacerbate internalizing or externalizing behavior in their children, according to results published in Pediatric Research.

In a study of 183 couples with children aged 5 years or younger, mothers perceived an average of 1.65 devices as interfering in their interactions with their child at least once per day, compared with an average of 1.43 devices per day for fathers. In addition, 56% of mothers and 43% of fathers reported that two or more devices interrupted their parent-child activities on a daily basis.

Higher technology interference (“technoference”) was associated with greater externalizing and internalizing behaviors in children and higher parenting stress for both mothers and fathers. Technoference also was associated with lower coparenting quality in fathers only, and greater parent depressive symptoms in mothers only, reported Brandon T. McDaniel, PhD, of Illinois State University, Normal, and Jenny S. Radesky, MD, of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Couple looking at their phones while ignoring their child Zinkevych/iStock/Getty Images

The parents observed participated in the Daily Family Life Project, a longitudinal study on family relationships from 2014 to 2016. Participants were required to be 18 years of age or older, a parent of a child 5 years of age or younger, an English speaker, and currently living with their partner and child. Participants first completed a baseline online survey via Qualtrics, followed by assessments at 1, 3, and 6 months.

Each follow-up survey included a technoference self-assessment completed by each parent, adapted from the Technology Device Interference Scale. Follow-up assessments included information on parental stress, coparenting quality, depressive symptoms, and child externalizing and internalizing behavior, using scales from the Child Behavioral Checklist. Internalizing was defined by behaviors such as whining, sulking, and easily hurt feelings, whereas externalizing included inability to sit still, restlessness, hyperactivity, being easily frustrated, and having temper tantrums, wrote Dr. McDaniel and Dr. Radesky.

Structural equation modeling was used to test models for child externalizing and internalizing in three hypotheses: more frequent technoference predicting higher ratings of child behavior problems (H1), higher ratings of child behavior problems predicting higher parenting stress (H2), and higher parenting stress predicting more frequent technoference (H3), the authors wrote.

H1 and H2 were supported in the externalizing behavior model but only partially supported in the internalizing model, with technoference predicting greater externalizing behavior at all subsequent time points (betas = 0.11, 0.16, and 0.13, P values less than .01), and child externalizing predicting greater parenting stress (betas = 0.16, 0.15, and 0.12, P values less than .01). H3 was partially supported in the externalizing and internalizing behavior models, with parenting stress predicting later technoference from baseline to month 1 (betas = 0.19 and 0.15, P values less than .01) and from month 1 to month 3 (betas= 0.17 and 0.19, P values less than .001), the authors reported.

The findings suggest that “relationships between parent technoference and child externalizing behavior are transactional and influence each other over time,” Dr. McDaniel and Dr. Radesky said.

“In other words, parents who have children with more externalizing problems become more stressed, which may lead to greater technoference (e.g., withdrawal with technology), which in turn may contribute to more child externalizing problems (and only sometimes internalized problems),” they added.

“Our results suggest that children may be more likely to act out over time in response to technoference as opposed to internalize, although when we examined internalizing subscales, child withdrawal was the most consistently associated with parent technoference over time. This may be due to (1) parents responding to child withdrawal social cues by feeling they too can disengage into their mobile device use, or (2) parent media use precipitating child withdrawal from social interaction,” the authors wrote.

The main limitation of this study was the self-reporting used by parents, which may be more subject to bias compared with observational methods, they added.

“It would be worthwhile to study whether experimental manipulation of parent mobile phone use habits – for example through unplugged family routines or less intrusive digital design – might lead to improvements in the parent-child relationship and child behavior,” Dr. McDaniel and Dr. Radesky concluded.

The study was funded by the College of Health and Human Development, Department of Human Development and Family Studies, and the Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center at Pennsylvania State University, National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Dr. McDaniel and Dr. Radesky had no relevant financial disclosures.

SOURCE: McDaniel B et al. Pediatr Res. 2018. doi: 10.1038/s41390-018-0052-6.

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