Infant attention span suffers when parents' eyes wander during playtime, study finds

April 28, 2016
Head-mounted cameras enabled psychologists to track how the movement of caregivers' eyes affected infants' attention. Credit: Indiana University

Caregivers whose eyes wander during playtime—due to distractions such as smartphones or other technology, for example—may raise children with shorter attention spans, according to a new study by psychologists at Indiana University.

The work, which appears online today in the journal Current Biology, is the first to show a direct connection between how long a caregiver looks at an object and how long an infant's attention remains focused on that same object.

"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," said Chen Yu, who led the study. "Caregivers who appear distracted or whose eyes wander a lot while their children play appear to negatively impact infants' burgeoning attention spans during a key stage of development."

Yu is a professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. Linda Smith, IU Distinguished Professor and Chancellor's Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences, is co-author on the paper.

"Historically, psychologists regarded attention as an property of individual development," Smith said. "Our study is one of the first to consider attention as impacted by social interaction. It really appears to be an activity performed by two social partners since our study shows one individual's attention significantly influence another's."

Thanks to head-mounted cameras worn by both and infants in the study, IU scientists got a first-person point of view on parents and children playing together in an environment that closely resembled a typical play session at home or day care. The technology also allowed the parents and children to play with physical toys. A typical eye-tracking study of children would involve manipulating objects on a screen.

The top image shows an infant from the caregivers' point of view. The lower image shows a caregiver from the infants' point of view. The crosshairs indicate the focus of the eyes. Credit: Indiana University

Caregivers were given no instructions before engaging with children to ensure the psychologists got an unfiltered view of their interactions.

Generally, Yu said, caregivers fell into two major 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 said. "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."

The caregivers who were most successful at sustaining the children's attention were those who "let the child lead." These caregivers waited until they saw the children express interest in a toy and then jumped in to expand that interest by naming the object and encouraging play.

"The responsive parents were sensitive to their children's interests and then supported their attention," Yu said. "We found they didn't even really need to try to redirect where the children were looking."

The gains in attention for children in this group were significant. In cases where infants and caregivers paid attention to the same object for over 3.6 seconds, the infant's attention lingered 2.3 seconds longer on average on the same object even after the caregiver's gaze turned away. This extra time works out to nearly four times longer compared to infants whose caregivers' attention strayed relatively quickly.

The impact of a few seconds here and there may seem small. But when they are magnified over a play session—and those play sessions occur over months of daily interaction during a critical stage in mental development—the outcomes grow significantly, Yu said. A number of other studies tracking the influence of in children from ages 1 through grade school show consistently that longer at an early age are a strong predictor of later achievement.

"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," said Sam Wass, a research scientist at the University of Cambridge whose commentary on the study appears in the same journal. "Chen Yu and Linda Smith's work in this area in recent years has been hugely influential."

The shortest spans in the study were observed in a third group, in which caregivers displayed extremely low engagement with while playing. These distracted caregivers tended to sit back and not play along, or simply look elsewhere during the exercise.

"When you've got a someone who isn't responsive to a child's behavior," Yu said, "it could be a real red flag for future problems."

Explore further: Infants with blind parents pay less attention to eyes

More information: Current Biology, Yu and Smith: "The Social Origins of Sustained Attention in One- Year-Old Human Infants" DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2016.03.026 , www.cell.com/current-biology/f … 0960-9822(16)30202-0

Related Stories

Infants with blind parents pay less attention to eyes

November 19, 2015
For parents of young children, there are few milestones more memorable than that first word. But people communicate an awful lot to each other without ever saying anything at all. That raises an intriguing question: how do ...

Cognitive scientists ID new mechanism at heart of early childhood learning and social behavior

November 13, 2013
Shifting the emphasis from gaze to hand, a study by Indiana University cognitive scientists provides compelling evidence for a new and possibly dominant way for social partners—in this case, 1-year-olds and their parents—to ...

New study finds that increasing your attention comes from using newly acquired knowledge

January 29, 2016
It's unclear whether brain-training games actually help our brain, especially in the long term. While there may not be a "magic pill" to make our brains more efficient, gaining new knowledge and using existing knowledge in ...

Children know best whether an allergy spray works for them

March 7, 2016
A recent 14-day study that compared the efficacy of an allergy spray in 304 children aged 6-11 years with seasonal allergic rhinitis showed that the result depended on who assessed symptoms: children themselves or their caregiver.

Psychology researchers find that dopamine genes could shine a light on early communication

April 12, 2016
University of Miami College of Arts & Sciences psychology researchers are searching for early markers of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Previously, UM researchers published a study predicting ASD symptoms from children's ...

When smartphone is near, parenting may falter

March 10, 2014
(HealthDay)—Mealtime is supposed to be family time, but a new study suggests that ever-present smartphones are impeding parent-child communication at the table.

Recommended for you

Like adults, children show bias in attributing mental states to others

August 22, 2017
Young children are more likely to attribute mental states to characters that belong to the same group as them relative to characters that belong to an outside group, according to findings published in Psychological Science, ...

High moral reasoning associated with increased activity in the human brain's reward system

August 22, 2017
Individuals who have a high level of moral reasoning show increased activity in the brain's frontostriatal reward system, both during periods of rest and while performing a sequential risk taking and decision making task ...

Wealth disparity and family income impact the brain development of female youth

August 22, 2017
Female teenagers living in neighbourhoods with wide salary gaps and a low-income household show changes to their brain maturation that could indicate a higher risk of developing mental illness in adulthood, suggests a recently ...

Yoga and meditation improve mind-body health and stress resilience

August 22, 2017
Many people report positive health effects from practicing yoga and meditation, and experience both mental and physical benefits from these practices. However, we still have much to learn about how exactly these practices ...

Brain's self-regulation in teens at risk for obesity

August 22, 2017
In a small study that scanned the brains of teenagers while exposing them to tempting "food cues," researchers report that reduced activity in the brain's "self-regulation" system may be an important early predictor of adult ...

New study rebuts the claim that antidepressants do not work

August 18, 2017
A theory that has gained considerable attention in international media, including Newsweek and the CBS broadcast 60 minutes, suggests that antidepressant drugs such as the SSRIs do not exert any actual antidepressant effect. ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.