Indianapolis News and Headlines


Study: Eye contact affects child attention span

Study: Eye contact affects child attention span
Study: Eye contact affects child attention span
Posted at 8:18 AM, Apr 29, 2016
and last updated 2016-04-29 12:22:30-04

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Children can become more prone to shorter attention spans if a parent or caregivers' eyes wander during playtime, according to an IU study released Thursday.

The study cites distractions such as smartphones or other technology as reason for wandering eyes of those engaging with their infants, specifically highlighting the need to make eye contact with the same object the child desires.

The study, which appears online in the journal Current Biology, is the first to show a direct connection between how long a caregiver looks at an object and how long an infant’s attention remains focused on that same object.

"The ability of children to sustain attention is known as a strong indicator for later success in areas such as language acquisition, problem-solving and other key cognitive development milestones," said Chen Yu, who led the study. "Caregivers who seem distracted or whose eyes wander a lot while their children play appear to negatively impact infants' burgeoning attention spans during a key stage of development."

Yu is a professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. Linda Smith, IU Distinguished Professor and Chancellor's Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences, is co-author on the study.

"Historically, psychologists regarded attention as an property of individual development," Smith said. "Our study is one of the first to consider attention as impacted by social interaction. It really appears to be an activity performed by two social partners since our study shows one individual's attention significantly influence another's."

The study was conducted with head-mounted cameras worn by both caregivers and infants. Indiana University scientists got a first-person point of view on parents and children playing together in an environment that closely resembled a typical play session. 

Caregivers fell into two major groups: those who let the infants direct the course of their play and those who attempted to forcefully guide the infants' interest toward specific toys.

"A lot of the parents were really trying too hard," he said. "They were trying to show off their parenting skills, holding out toys for their kids and naming the objects. But when you watch the camera footage, you can actually see the children's eyes wandering to the ceilings or over their parents’ shoulders -- they're not paying attention at all."

The caregivers who were most successful at sustaining the children’s attention were those who "let the child lead." These caregivers waited until they saw the children express interest in a toy and then jumped in to expand that interest by naming the object and encouraging play.

"The responsive parents were sensitive to their children's interests and then supported their attention," Yu said. "We found they didn't even really need to try to redirect where the children were looking."

The parents that were successful had an infant's attention linger 2.3 seconds longer on average on the same object even after the caregiver's gaze turned away, which is nearly four times longer compared to infants whose caregivers' attention strayed more quickly, according to the study.

The study says the impact of a few seconds here and there may seem small, but when you consider the months of daily interaction during this critical stage of mental development, the outcomes grow significantly. 

IU cites a number of other studies tracking the influence of sustained attention in children from ages 1 through grade school show consistently that longer attention spans at an early age are a strong predictor of later achievement.

"Showing that what a parent pays attention to minute by minute and second by second actually influences what a child is paying attention to may seem intuitive, but social influences on attention are potentially very important and ignored by most scientists," said Sam Wass, a research scientist at the University of Cambridge whose commentary on the study appears in thesame journal. "Chen Yu and Linda Smith's work in this area in recent years has been hugely influential."

The shortest attention spans in the study were observed in a third group, in which caregivers displayed extremely low engagement with children while playing. These distracted caregivers tended to sit back and not play along, or simply look elsewhere during the exercise.

"When you’ve got a someone who isn't responsive to a child's behavior," Yu said, "it could be a real red flag for future problems."

You can read more from IU here.