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Study: Screen time affects parent-child interaction

Mothers aren't engaging children while they use devices, study says

Whether they're using iPads, cellphones or TV, children are constantly drawn to devices these days. That means parents often have a love-hate relationship with technology.

The entertainment it can offer is great, but kids tend go into that "tablet trance" as soon as the devices are turned on.

"I could literally come in the door from work if they're downstairs and, 'Hi, guys!' Nothing, not a word," Demetrius Orr said.

Reyonna and Demetrius Orr keep a close eye on the screen time of their three children.

But when sons Ahmad and Amir are using their tablets, getting their attention is tough.

"I literally find myself saying, 'They didn't hear you,'" Reyonna Orr said.

It's interactions like this that interest researcher Dr. Sarah Domoff.

[WEB EXTRA: Read more about the research here]  

She's co-author of a study by the University of Michigan that measures the level of interaction between children ages three to five and their mothers during screen time.

Forty-four families wore recording devices at home.

"We could listen to the recording when children were watching different types of media and we really hear what they are exposed to, and importantly, what their mothers are talking to them about," Domoff said. "One of our main findings that mothers of children in these homes were not speaking to children about the media content they were watching."

In 54 percent of the recordings there was no mother-child interaction when media was being used.

"We did have 33 percent where there were brief comments back and forth about what the children were watching, but the majority of the time children were not communicating with their mothers," said Domoff.

Some recordings highlighted a missed opportunity for parents.

"When the child tried to get the parents' attention or tried to talk about the content but there was no response," Domoff said.

Only 13 percent of the recordings captured what researchers call "active mediation."

"Active mediation -- an example would be a parent explaining the purpose of the commercial to the child or saying, 'I wonder how that character feels when that other character treats him that way,'" Domoff said. "So it is really kind of processing the content and helping the child think about what is happening, and even highlighting values that are important to the family."

Active mediation has been found to help reduce the impact of advertising and other media influences on children.

But Domoff admits that's difficult for parents using technology as an "electronic babysitter" of sorts.

"It is really challenging to be present while your child is watching television or using different types of media when you have other things going on and trying to take care of household tasks or deal with other siblings," Domoff said.

The study also found differences based on the mother's level of education. Children of moms with graduate degrees tended to watch more educational programming, had less screen time overall and had more parent interaction when they did use devices.

Domoff urges all parents to think about the quality of screen time, not just the quantity.

"Parents have a powerful role in protecting children from certain messages in the media and I think that is a really positive message," said Domoff.

The Orr family agrees.

"I think the interaction is important, but that's how I was raised, like I spent a ton of time with my parents and we spend a ton of time with them," Reyonna Orr said. "I do want them to have the ability to work the technology, to understand the technology, but you don't have to live on it all day to do that."