A study in China recently found that adolescents who experience parental phubbing—when parents ignore their children in favor of their smartphones—are more likely to suffer from sleep disturbances. The research, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, sheds light on the growing concern over how parental phone usage can negatively impact children’s well-being.
When looking at parents with children in restaurants, parks, or at family gatherings, it has become increasingly common to see parents deeply focused on their phones instead of engaging with their children and bonding with them. In the recent decade, this type of behavior has been becoming ever more frequent and it can easily be observed in many settings that were traditionally considered an opportunity for parent-child interactions.
The term “phubbing“ combines “phone” with “snubbing,” highlighting the neglect of face-to-face interactions for the sake of interacting with a mobile phone. The phenomenon of phubbing has attracted a lot of research attention in recent years. Studies consistently link this behavior to various adverse consequences, such as worse subjective well-being of persons exposed to it, decreased self-esteem, and worse interpersonal relationships with the person doing the phubbing. While most often researched in the context of partner relationships, parental phubbing of their children has also started to receive notable research attention.
Study author Qian Ding and her colleagues wanted to investigate the relationship between parental phubbing, negative emotions, self-control, and sleep quality problems in adolescents. Their expectation was that parental phubbing might be causing negative emotions in adolescents. These negative emotions would, in turn, lead to sleep problems. They also hypothesized that adolescents’ self-control might be moderating this relationship.
The participants were 781 students from two junior high schools (grades 7-12) and two senior high schools in central China. Of these, 506 came from rural areas, while 275 were from urban areas. 366 students were female. 389 were from junior high schools. Participants were between 12 and 18 years of age.
Students completed assessments of parental phubbing (the Parental Phubbing Scale), negative emotions (the Ultra-brief Screening Scale for Depression and Anxiety revised), self-control (the Self-Control Questionnaire for Chinese children), and sleep quality problems (the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index scale).
The results showed that adolescents who reported higher levels of parental phubbing were more likely to experience negative emotions and sleep problems. Interestingly, parental phubbing was not linked to the adolescents’ self-control.
The researchers also tested a statistical model to examine the potential pathway from parental phubbing to sleep quality issues through negative emotions, with self-control acting as a moderating factor. Results showed that such a state of relationships between the studied factors is indeed possible. Additionally, self-control was shown to moderate the relationship between parental phubbing and negative emotions. Parental phubbing more consistently led to negative emotions in children with lower self-control. This link was greatly diminished in children with better self-control.
“In summary, parental phubbing is an important factor that influences adolescent sleep quality problems,” the study authors concluded. “Negative emotions mediate the relationship between parental phubbing and adolescent sleep quality problems. And self-control moderated the effect of parental phubbing on adolescent negative emotions.”
“Specifically, the mediating effect of negative emotions was more significant for adolescents low in self-control relative to those high in self-control. Therefore, in order to help adolescents decrease sleep quality problems, we can reduce their parental phubbing, reduce their negative emotions, and maintain their moderate self-control.”
The study contributes to the scientific understanding of the links between parental behavior and psychological characteristics of their children. However, it should be noted that the design of this study does not allow any cause-and-effect conclusions to be drawn from the data.
The study, “Does parental phubbing aggravates adolescent sleep quality problems?“, was authored by Qian Ding, Siwei Dong, and Yongxin Zhang.