The Powerful Influence of Secondhand Screen Time on a Child's Brain: What Parents Need to Know

You just finished browsing Pinterest after getting the recipe you needed. You put your phone down to set out the ingredients. Your daughter is sitting in her highchair wanting some more applesauce. A text comes in. Your pregnant sister is asking if you liked the stroller you used for your kids. You begin to respond back, only to receive an incoming call from your husband. He reminds you about the get-together tonight at his co-worker’s house. You go to Facebook to see who’s also going and decide to message a friend to see what she’s wearing. In the meantime, your daughter’s ear-piercing scream for more applesauce finally grabs your attention. You put your phone down to help her, but pick it right back up to text a few possible babysitters for tonight.

Neuroscience researchers have a term for our clinging reactions to the constant attention-seeking demands of our phones—we live in a state of “continuous partial attention.”

What does that mean? We rarely pay full attention to any one task, to the neglect of all others. With notifications tailgating our every move, our stress levels are heightened and our attention spans diminishing—especially in the presence of our kids.

Go ahead. Sit yourself down at the lunch table in your daughter’s shoes, and begin asking for more applesauce. How do you think she feels about mom’s “continuous partial attention” to her?

Our relationship with our devices—not unlike the secondhand smoke elicited by a smoker—may be impacting our children more deeply than we realize.

One such study recently found that distracted parental attention might have damaging effects on our babies’ cognitive development, especially their ability to process pleasure.

Translation: If I, as a dad, working from home, am consistently distracted by my phone when my children are expecting me to play, feed or otherwise enjoy time with them, it could wire their brain for interruptions, causing a poorly developed pleasure system. Such interruptions, if consistent over time, can lead to anxiety and depression in our children.

Our children want and need us more than anything else on the planet—especially in those first few years of life. If research is beginning to show that our inability to put the phone down is wiring our kids’ brains in such harmful ways, perhaps it’s time we begin to show our children they’re more important than the phone.

How can we decrease the amount of time our children experience our “continuous partial attention” in their presence (i.e. secondhand screen time)?

1. Set only certain times of the day you check email or social media. If you have scheduled times where you check email or social media, you won’t be so tempted to constantly be answering every notification coming into your phone while you’re with your children. Turn it off and own your time.

2. Set specific playtimes with your kids where no phones are allowed. You know those times when you really want to talk to your spouse but he/she is nose deep in the phone? Imagine that feeling—times a hundred—for your children who are dependent on your attention for brain growth. Set aside a minimum of 20 minutes of command-free playtime each day where phones are nowhere in sight.

3. No phones at mealtimes. The research showing the positive benefits of telling stories and talking to one another over dinner is beyond plentiful. Our devices are not placemats. Our children are not invisible; don’t let them feel like they are. There will come a day when you’ll want to talk to them, but by then, you’ll be invisible.

4. If you work from home, make sure you’re clear with your children when you’re working and when it’s playtime. Whether it’s closing the doors or putting up a sign, set an expectation for your kids where they learn to differentiate between work and play. This way, they won’t interrupt your work.

And if you’re like me, you may have to physically put your phone in another room once playtime begins so they—and you—don’t confuse the two. This way, you won’t interrupt their play.

Continuous partial attention is not only making us anxious, it’s making our kids anxious, too. Separate your tasks, and not only will you be more productive with work, your kids will also learn that they’re worthy of your full, undivided attention.


Joshua Straub, Ph.D. is an author, speaker, and president and co-founder of the Connextion Group, a company designed to empower parents and families. Josh speaks and writes on emotionally safe parents and spouses and the influence of technology on today's family. He is the author of the newly released Safe House: How Emotional Safety is the Key to Raising Kids Who Live, Love, and Lead Well (Waterbrook Multnomah) and along with his wife, Christi, is the producer and co-author of the video curriculum The Screen-Balanced Family: Six Secrets to a More Connected Family in the 21st CenturyHe wakes up each day striving to love others better beginning with his wife, Christi, and their son, Landon, and daughter, Kennedy.

For more encouragement and ideas on marriage and parenting in the 21st century, you can join Josh and a growing tribe of awesome families at www.joshuastraub.com and follow him on Twitter @joshuastraub or Facebook.