Distracted Parents and Problem Children

What is the impact of cell phone distraction on successful parenting?

Posted Jun 28, 2017

Have you seen them at the parks and in the coffee shops? Parents hypnotized by their phones and computers; seemingly unaware of what their children are doing. What happens to those children?

We know very little about the ramifications of distracted parenting. Given the proliferation of technology use, studying the impact on parent-child interaction seems critical.

In a just released study, Brandon McDaniel and Jenny Radesky (2107) investigated the relationship between parent technology use and child behavior problems. First, they asked moms and dads about their own technology use. Parents noted how often various technological devices interrupted their interactions with child on a daily basis. What devices? Everything. Cell phones, computers, TVs, tablets, and videogames. Parents also rated their own problematic technology use: do they feel a need to immediately check and respond to new text messages, think often about their cell phone texts and calls, and believe they use their cell phones too much. Most parents acknowledged these devices frequently distracted them when interacting with their children.

McDaniel and Radesky called this ‘technoference’. Technoference occurs when various technological devices interfere with social interaction. It’s a nicely descriptive term. In this study, McDaniel and Radesky were interested in technoference during parent-child interactions. It happens. Frequently. I’m sure you’ve seen it and maybe you’ve let it happen. You’ve been reading or playing with your child when your cell phone buzzes. Do you stop? Do you respond? Do you interrupt your time with your child to take that call or respond to that email? McDaniel and Radesky reported that only 11% of the parents claimed that technoference never happened. I’m not sure I believe those parents.

But what is the impact of technoference? Do more of these daily interruptions add up to a significant impact on children?

To assess the impact, McDaniel and Radesky asked the parents to rate their children on a behavioral checklist. Some of the items concerned internalizing behavioral problems – children who sulk, whine, and display easily hurt feelings. Other items addressed external behavioral problems – children who are hyperactive, are easily frustrated, and display frequent temper tantrums.

The disturbing findings can be stated simply. The more often parents reported experiencing technoference, the more behavioral problems they rated their children displaying. The strongest predictor was technoference by moms. This probably reflects a sample with moms more often being the primary care providers.

Let me be clear about something really important. This was a single correlational study. I’d like to see the findings replicated. Even with replication, we still can’t know the causal direction. We only know that parent-child technological disruptions were related to child behavioral problems. Maybe when a child displays more behavior problems, parents start looking for their own ways to escape and find some rewarding activities. A cell phone provides a ready escape hatch from any unrewarding social interaction.

Of course, the causal direction may run the other way. When parents are more distracted, children learn to misbehave. Children really want their parents to attend to them. When their parents are distracted, the children may need more extreme behaviors to capture their parents’ attention. In this way, children learn to display behavioral problems. When the children act out, their parents will put down the phone and respond.

I’ve wondered about the effects of distracted parenting. I’ve written a lot about how cell phone and computer distraction impair a great variety of activities. Cell phone distraction can cause driving accidents; maybe even at a rate similar to drunk driving. Using your cell phone makes you unaware and at risk when walking through town. Cell phone and computer distractions impair learning in classrooms. Cell phones disrupt social interactions. Even simply overhearing part of a cell phone conversation can be distracting.

I’m a big fan of cell phones, really. I love the easy connection to friends and family. I appreciate having all the world’s knowledge in my pocket all the time. But these benefits must be balanced against the risks and costs. Don’t use technology while driving, walking, learning, or socializing. And really don’t be a distracted parent. The risk to your child is not worth answering that email, responding to that text, or updating your Facebook status.


McDaniel, B. T., & Radesky, J., S. (2017). Technoference: Parent distraction with technology and associations with child behavioral problems. Child Development, early release. DOI: 10.111/cdev.12822