A new study published in Current Biology suggests that parents can increase the attention span of their child as early as during infancy by displaying interest in the same toy their child is playing with.
Head-mounted eye-tracking devices were used by Drs. Chen Yu and Linda Smith of the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University to collect data pertaining to where 36 parents were looking while playing with their 1-year-old children. Parents were not told what the scientists were looking for in order to obtain the most natural interactions as possible between parents and children.
Findings suggest that when a parent focused on a toy, the child paid attention to the same toy for a longer period of time even continuing after the parent had looked away.
The shortest attention spans in children were found among those with parents who became easily distracted, looked at their phones, or sat back and did not interact with their child.
According to the researchers, results were "dose dependent," meaning that the longer the parent and child focused on the same object together, the longer the child would continue to engage with the toy after the parent had looked away.
"This effect, day in and day out in an infant's life, may be the source of strong skills in sustained attention and concentration," Smith said in a press release.
Researchers also found that parents who engaged in directed play with their child, or held toys out for their child and named them, also had children with lower attention spans than those whose children led the imaginative play.
Previous research suggests attention span development begins in infancy. Children who are better able to hold their attention to one object for a sustained period of time during this stage of life are often associated with higher developmental outcomes later on, including object exploration, language development, and problem solving, reports Amy Kraft for CBS News.
Study authors were shocked to discover these results, as it was previously believed that a child's attention span was dependent on their brain. However, research shows that social interactions could be responsible for the development of the ability to hold attention on one object for a prolonged period of time.
"The surprising finding here is that child sustained attention is a social thing (but not just a child's own cognitive property). It can be changed/expanded by real-time behaviors from parents," Yu said.
While one-year-olds were used in the current study, Yu and Smith said the study has been replicated using 18-month-olds and two-year-olds with the same results being seen.
Yu said the findings could be used to help children with attention disorders. He hopes that further research on the long-term effects of how parents' interactions affect their child's attention development will help this area of thought. In addition, he said that more research is needed on how this type of interaction may influence children with autism.
"The general aim in our research is to understand how parent behaviors can impact child's attention, and in what ways parents can provide better learning environments for early development," Yu said.