By Amy Norton
WEDNESDAY, June 20, 2018 (HealthDay News) -- Parents who take refuge in their smartphones when their kids throw a tantrum may, in the long run, make matters worse, a new study suggests.
The study, of 183 couples with young children, found that stressed-out parents often turned to their electronic devices when dealing with their kids. And when that was a pattern, their kids' behavior typically worsened over the next several months.
Researchers said the findings do not prove smartphones are to blame.
But they also said the study raises concerns about what some researchers call "technoference" -- where parents are less present for their children because digital devices are constantly vying for their attention.
"Young children can be hard to 'read' as it is," said researcher Dr. Jenny Radesky. "It's really difficult to read them when you're distracted by something else. In general, when you're toggling between different things, you're not as good at any of them."
Children, in turn, get frustrated when mom and dad appear to be withdrawing from them into a device. "They may learn that they have to act out to get attention," said Radesky, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School, in Ann Arbor.
However, that doesn't necessarily mean smartphones and other devices are the root of the problem, according to Yamalis Diaz, a clinical assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU Langone Health, in New York City.
Parents who are having trouble managing their children's behavior -- for various reasons -- may be the ones most likely to constantly check their phones, said Diaz, who was not involved in the study.
Device use, she explained, may be a "symptom" of a broader issue.
That said, there are reasons to be concerned about today's mobile technology.
Parents have long turned to media -- a TV show or a book -- to get a break from their kids, Radesky said.
But mobile devices can interfere with parent-child interactions anytime, anywhere. Plus, they are simply more absorbing than books or TV, because they "contain your whole life," Radesky added.
"They're psychologically very healthy, even during this vulnerable time of life," said Gartrell, a visiting scholar at the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law. The study began in 1986 with 84 families -- mostly headed by lesbian couples, but with some single lesbian moms, too.