In a new study conducted at Indiana University, Dr. Chen Yu and Dr. Linda Smith were able to find the first direct link between a child’s attention span and that of their parents.
The study, which was published in the journal Current Biology, was meant to prove that parents who are constantly checking their phones (or get easily distracted by outside stimuli) while playing with their children are affecting their children’s attention span.
In order to conduct the study with the most natural results, parents weren’t told what they were being studied for. All that the 36 parents were asked to do was wear a head-mounted camera. From there, researchers could observe how parents played with and engaged their children (babies aged one to one-and-a-half) with toys, also how often the parents got distracted or checked their phones. In addition, researchers observed how their parents’ behaviour affected the child’s eye movement and general attention.
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The data showed that the longer a parent, and by extension their baby, paid attention to an object or toy while playing, the longer the baby kept paying attention to it. Even after the parents stopped playing, these babies would tend to pay attention to the object. In summation, these babies and parents displayed the best attention spans.
Conversely, the babies whose parents got distracted stopped playing with the baby, or constantly checked their cellphones displayed worse attention spans. Surprisingly, these distracted parents did not yield the worst results.
The babies that displayed the worst attention spans were those whose parents tried to overly engage the children. Parents who held toys out to their baby tried to give names, or draw attention to a specific toy yielded the worst results with their babies. Evidently, it’s better to let your baby take lead while playing.
“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. 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. When you’ve got someone who isn’t responsive to a child’s behaviour, it could be a real red flag for future problems,” said Dr. Chen Yu.
“Because sustained attention matters to school success, this influence provides a way to understand individual differences in sustained attention and to potentially influence its development,” he added.
While there is a lot to learn from the interaction between parents and their babies in terms of attention span, one thing can be noted from the study: don’t try to overcompensate!
“Parents who had more success were those who let their children take the 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,” says Yu.
The research, in terms of numbers, is quite clear. Parents (and their babies) who were attentive to one specific object for 3.6 seconds offered some pretty staggering numbers. The babies of these parents continued to lend their attention to the same object for an additional 2.6 seconds on average. To put that in perspective, that’s roughly 4x longer than the other babies.
It’s clear that properly playing with your children at a young age can lead to stronger attention spans and other benefits in terms of learning. Dr. Linda Smith says, “This effect, day in and day out in an infant’s life, maybe the source of strong skills in sustained attention and concentration.”
If you have any insights, questions or comments regarding the topic, please share them with us!