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Parents' Screen Time Linked to Children's Behavior Problems

John D. Cowden, MD, MPH reviewing 

Interruptions in parent–child interactions due to parents' technology device use predicted worse child behavior and vice versa.

Electronic device use by parents that interferes with parent–child communication or activities has been associated with childhood behavior in cross-sectional studies, but longitudinal studies exploring how they relate are lacking.

Researchers analyzed survey data collected at four time points over 6 months from 172 couples (337 individuals) having at least one child aged 1 to 5 years. Ninety-one percent of parents were white and 72% had at least a bachelor's degree. Surveys included parents' self-reported measures of: 1) frequency of technology device use interrupting parent–child interactions; 2) externalizing and internalizing child behaviors, and; 3) parent stress. Responses were tested for associations between the three variables.

As hypothesized by the researchers, the relationship between parent device use interruptions and child behavior was bidirectional and was mediated by parent stress. More device use interruptions predicted child externalizing behavior, more child externalizing behavior predicted parent stress, and more parent stress predicted more device interruptions. There was more-limited evidence of the same relationships for child internalizing behavior.


When discussing child screen time with parents, clinicians can include parent device use as well. This study supports a balanced approach, acknowledging that parents' devices allow them some relief from the stresses of parenting young children, but cautioning that when they interfere with parent–child interactions and activities, child behavior can worsen, creating a vicious cycle. Future studies need to focus on more-diverse parent populations.