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Digital Life: 8 Surprising Findings About What Parents Think

Is Parental FOMO trumping common sense?

Last February, I wrote a blog called “The Top 5 Things Parents Don’t Want to Hear about their Kids,” which was my own take on expert information parents today chose to ignore, most of it having to do with technology. Lo and behold, it turned out that Northwestern University conducted a substantial research study on “Parenting in the Digital Age” that was published in June. In the hope of provoking some discussion, here’s some of what they found by interviewing parents of children age 0 to eight.

1.  Parents of young kids aren’t worried about the effect of technology

This is doubtless a reflection of their own comfort with digital life because 78% disagree with the statement that “negotiating media use causes conflict in our home.” So much for arguments about the need to disconnect.  In fact, 55% of parents say they’re not concerned about their kids’ use of media and 59% don’t worry about their kids “becoming addicted to new media.” The number of parents who are worried is comparatively small—some 13 % are “very” concerned while another 17% are “somewhat” concerned.

2. Most parents are more likely to think that media and technology have a positive effect on their children’s academic skills.

In fairness, this isn’t a majority but, with the sole exception of video games, parents ascribe all sorts of benefits to media use, which, I’ll readily admit, I find utterly bewildering but I will report anyway. Television is seen as a positive influence on reading skills by 38%, on math skills by 36%, and on speaking skills by 56%. (!) 47% find television has a positive effect on creativity. I’m not sure what shows their children are watching but the connection is eluding me. At the same time, 42% believe television has a negative effect on attention span. Video games, though, garner more negatives than other media.

3. It’s parents who create the familial media environment

This is actually interesting because, anecdotally at least, most articles paint a picture of how kids, especially older ones, are the driving forces for more technology (begging for cell phones, more computer time, television and the like) or, alternatively, that parents are motivated by worry that their kids will somehow be “behind” if they don’t have access. The study found that parents’ own media use set the tone for the household and, if they are themselves “media-centric” as some 39% are, their children are likely to be.  People who are “media-centric” spend roughly 11 hours a day on screens. (Do they sleep?)  Of these, 48% have the television on all the time and 44% have a television in a child’s bedroom, where that child is doubtless becoming a better, if more distracted, speaker and reader. 81% of these parents use the television as a “babysitter” when they have things to do.

45% of parents are “media-moderate” meaning that they “only” interact with screens five hours a day, outside of work. Their children “only” spend three hours a day with screen media.

A relatively small number of families—just 16% of those surveyed—are “media light” meaning that they spend less than 2 hours a day on screens and their kids spend even less.

It will be interesting to see how many families become “media-centric” in the future if this study is right in determining that there’s little worry out there generally about the negative effects of technology on young children.

4. Parents in the digital age are confident parents

A whopping nine out of ten believe they have “all the skills necessary to be a good parent to my child.” And, interestingly enough, the study also may provide an answer to why so many parents today ignore expert advice, especially about technology and its effects on children. A very small percentage of parents, it turns out, get their advice from books, websites, or even blogs; most turn to spouses (52%), their own mothers (34%) and friends (25%),

5.  Media activity goes solo as a child ages

While 56% of parents with children under the age of two say that they watch television with their child most or all of the time (even though these kids shouldn’t be watching television in the first place, according to experts), after the age of two to five, parent involvement drops to 34% and by the age of six, only 22% have a parent to watch with. Since as they get older, kids also spend time on other screens, one wonders about the effect on “shared” family time, now and in the future.

For more on this—and some contradictory thinking—see also number 7.

6. Technology is becoming a parenting tool

The threat of “no television for you if you don’t stop it!” isn’t exactly new news and it will surprise no one that it’s still in currency, along with no computer, no iPad and the like. In fact, access to technology and media are used for both reward and punishment in the digital age.

The use of technology—whether that’s a television or a smartphone or a tablet—as a calming device or distractor is also prevalent. In New York City where I live, I see this everyday where, along with a pacifier, an iPhone is the antidote to the fussy baby dilemma.

Alas, this study shows that while children are still being put to bed with a story or book being read to them, it’s no longer anywhere near universal. More than one-third of parents tuck their kids in with television or a DVD.

7.  Parents aren’t convinced technology and media affect social behavior

This is particularly bewildering, since we know that technology has already changed some behaviors among tweens and teens who live media-centric lives. Keep in mind that the parents surveyed here have children ages 0 through 8!  While many parents seem convinced of the educational value of the media, including television, there’s only a bit of disquiet about its possible negative effect on social behavior. The word “a bit” is an important qualifier since many parents actually believe technology exerts no effect on social behavior at all: 61% of those surveyed believed that computer use had no effect, 57% believe that about mobile devices, and 42% about television.

While some parents in the survey admitted to some concerns, the report makes it clear that the majority of parents don’t see media and technology as being potentially harmful; it follows, then, as time goes on and technology becomes more and more an expected part of parenting and child-rearing practices, there might be even fewer concerns and questions.

I suspect that what’s really going on is that parents themselves don’t want to put their smartphones down or give up their computer time. A number of comments by parents published in the study said precisely that; as one father put it, “ I can remain connected with my life while being with my children.”  (Hmm…  are you reading this the way I’m reading it?)

8. The majority of parents worry about technology’s impact on physical activity.

This too seems odd since parents are very much in control of how much physical activity a child engages in. Similarly, parents also worry about sleep. Bedtime, as I remember, is still pretty much dictated by parents, not children 8 or younger.

I’ve written this before but I’ll write it again: It still surprises me how all of this technological change has taken place without the kind of major cultural dialogue that accompanied the advent of television. 

Copyright© Peg Streep 2013

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