IU study finds parents who are distracted cause kids to have short attention spans

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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (May 2, 2016) -- A study by Indiana University researchers found that a parent who is distracted with their child can negatively affect that child's attention span.

Lead researcher and professor Chen Yu showed CBS4 how the study worked, using head-mounted cameras that track eye movement during playtime.

Yu and his team brought parents and young children, infants to toddlers, into their lab and didn't explain the full scope of the study.

"They came to the lab, they were asked to play with some toys, they (could) do whatever they want to do, say whatever they want to say," Yu said.

The results are getting some attention of their own, after they were published in the journal Current Biology.

Yu and his team found that the more a parent or caregiver is distracted while playing with a child, the shorter that child's attention span tends to be. That could be any distraction, including checking a phone or other technology at home.

"If parents are distracted by other things, cell phones and so on, then the children really play by themselves and in that case, children show difficulty to sustain attention," Yu said.

Given that sustained attention is a predictor of language development, problem solving skills, and other important factors, Yu said the findings could prove significant.

Another finding could also help parents. Yu said many parents "tried too hard" to get their child to play with certain toys, whereas allowing the child to choose and lead the playtime tended to have a more positive effect on attention span.

"It’s actually easier if you let the child play with some object, and then you join the child, and then you comment on those objects," Yu said.

Lab manager and IU graduate Steven Elmlinger worked on a lot of the nitty-gritty work with the study. He said that it has proved valuable because it is accessible to real life situations for the everyday parent.

"The nice thing about our findings is that we can explain them to regular people," Elmlinger said.

The study is part of a longer five-year study funded by the National Institutes of Health. It will still run for another two years, in which Yu hopes to collect more long-term data to see what happens with the kids over time.

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