Parents who turn to smartphones and tablets to break up the tedium of caring for an infant around the clock may be teaching their babies to have a short attention span, a small study suggests.
That's because when parents stop focusing on playtime with their baby to concentrate on other things like tiny screens, their infants may mimic this behavior by also focusing on toys and other objects for shorter periods of time.
In other words, babies learn to focus better when their parents aren't distracted, said lead study author Chen Yu, a brain science researcher at Indiana University at Bloomington.
"If parents join a child's attention on a toy object, children are more likely to show longer attention on the target object compared with cases that parents don't show any attention or interest," Yu said by email.
This works best when parents follow their baby's lead, Yu added.
"If parents try to lead by getting the child's attention on the object of the parent's interest, this effort may not be successful," Yu said. "But if parents just follow the child's attention/interest it is easier to be in joint attention with their child."
To understand how parental distraction influences babies' attention spans, Yu and colleagues outfitted 36 infant-parent pairs with head-mounted gadgets that tracked their eye movements to measure how long they focused on different objects.
The babies were around 11 to 13 months old.
Researchers put parents and babies in a room with several engaging toys and then sat back to see what happened when the parents didn't get any instruction on how to interact with their kids.
Generally, care givers fell into two groups: those who let infants direct the course of play and those who tried to guide babies toward specific toys.
When parents looked where their kids did, they typically both paid attention to the same object for more than 3.6 seconds. Then, the infant's attention lingered on the same object for another 2.3 seconds after their parent turned away.
While that may not seem like much time, the babies whose parents followed their lead focused on objects for about four times longer than did infants whose care givers' were quickly distracted.
Babies whose parents made little effort to focus on what their kids were playing with during the study had even shorter attention spans than the children whose parents focused briefly before looking away.
Beyond its small size, other limitations of the study include the lack of information on other parent and caregiver behaviors that may shape children's attention spans, the authors note in the journal Current Biology.
Talking about toys during playtime and reading stories about toys, for example, may increase young children's interest in these toys and help them focus on these objects for longer periods of time, they write.
The paper also didn't address how a parent's own history of attention deficit or hyperactivity disorders might influence the way their children learn to focus on objects.
The study only looks at how well children follow what their parents look at second by second, and not at every way that kids mimic the focus they see in care givers, noted Dr. Sam Wass, a researcher at the University of East London and the University of Cambridge in the U.K. who wasn't involved in the study.
"This paper isn't looking at attention span per se," Wass said by email. "Rather, it is about how second-by-second changes in a parent's attention influence a child's attention. So if I choose to pay attention to nice things, my baby is more likely to pay attention to them too."