Parenting the littlest media users: Important study

By Anne Collier

Increasingly, digital media are just part of the rhythm of everyday US family life, a significant new study of parents of young children indicates. The study, “Parenting in the Age of Digital Technology,” conducted by Northwestern University’s Center on Media & Human Development, surveyed a nationally representative sample of more than 2,300 parents of children 8 and under about how media – both “traditional” and digital – inform and fit into their everyday lives and parenting. The authors found that “78% report that their children’s media use is not a source of family conflict, and 59% said they aren’t concerned their kids will become addicted to new media,” according to US News & World Report.

What does concern those parents is the impact of lots of screen time on kids’ health – “the negative impact screen time has on kids’ physical activity levels. More than 60% said video games result in less movement by their children, with similar proportions saying the same about TV, computers and mobile devices,” US News reports. The authors themselves wrote that parents “are more likely to find a positive than negative effect of media and technology on many of their children’s academic skills.”

Family media use very individual

But it’s so individual from family to family, both the report and author, professor and tech parenting expert Lynn Schofield Clark indicate. Dr. Clark, who attended the release event in Washington, had an important take-away: “We don’t all experience media in the same way.” For some families in some neighborhoods, for example, staying inside playing video games might be safer than playing outside.

In her post about the report in, she points to what I think of as an ideal approach to parenting where media’s concerned: “an ethic of respectful connectedness,” Clark calls it. “To the extent that media can help parents and family members to stay connected and to remain respectful of who they are and where they’ve come from, media can be seen as useful and helpful in relation to family goals.”

Less is better? It depends

So far in the digital age, our society tends to believe less media is better, but “not all parents can engage in the kind of concerted cultivation activities hat tend to make media use lighter,” Clark writes. Families “may face economic, health, language, or job- or transportation-related challenges…. ‘Helicopter parenting’ and concerted cultivation are rooted in the idea that young people can achieve and improve their lives through participation in existing societal structures, whether that’s school, sports or the arts. But while families facing greater economic challenges hope that these things will help, they don’t trust that they will [emphases hers]. They look to their families, neighborhoods, friends and communities to help their children develop the resilience they will need to face the challenges of racism, prejudice, and structural inequalities.”

Clark cites the view of Prof. Vikki Katz at Rutgers University, “who has studied Latino immigrant parents and their children” and said at the conference that “it’s important not to pathologize families who have economic struggles. They have the same goals as the rest of us when it comes to wanting the best for their children and in their hopes for the ‘American dream,’ and those of us working in areas of policy, research, and industry need to seek to provide support for them on their own terms.”

Some other interesting findings

  • Tablets not babysitters: I’ve often heard it said that, when parents are busy, they just hand kids a smartphone or tablet. Not true. This study shows that they’re “more apt to turn to toys or activities (88%), books (79%) or TV (78%). Of parents with smartphones or iPads, only 37% reported being somewhat or very likely to turn to those devices.”
  • Early media independence: Lots of parents use media with young children, the authors report, “but this ‘joint media engagement’ drops off markedly for children who are six or older.”
  • Parenting no easier. These parents use digital devices a whole lot, but most (70%) “don’t think they’ve made parenting any easier.”
  • Socio-economic differences: Families with incomes of $25,000 or less are more likely than families with incomes of $100,000 or more “to turn to TV for educational purposes” – 54% vs. 31%, respectively. It may have something to do with language, I think, that the researchers found that “lower income parents are also more likely to think TV has a ‘very’ positive effect on children’s reading (23%, compared to 4% among the higher-income group) as well as their math and speaking skills.” The authors add that “similar differences are found in parents’ views about the positives and negatives of computers as well,” which makes me wonder if “computers” means the Internet.
  • Media time management. Professor Clark recommends that, instead of asking how much screen time is too much, parents might “think about teaching time management” so they can learn develop their own self-regulatory skills. And Prof. Barbara Fiese at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, encourages “healthy habits in the whole ‘family ecology'” of which media is just one part, Clark reports.

The Northwestern researchers divvied the various kinds of media environments that parents have created for their families into three buckets based on quantity of screen time: the 39% of households that are “media-centric” (11+ hours of screen time/day, with children spending 4-5 hours a day on-screen); the 45% that are “media-moderate” (spending just under 5 hours on-screen/day, with children spending just under 3 hours); and the16% that are “media-light” (generally with higher levels of income and education and spending even lower amounts of time with screen media, with children spending under 1.5 hours/day on-screen).

What does all this say about parenting these days? To Lynn Clark, it suggests that “parents will have to prepare children for a world that requires intentional effort as we seek to maintain the bonds that matter most to us.” I’m with her on that and, if I can riff on it a little bit: Successful participation in social media (not to mention school, work and all social spaces in our kids’ futures) is conscious participation. It’s both social literacy and media literacy – a “respectful connectedness,” as Lynn put it, online and offline. It doesn’t only defeat bullying and other anti-social behavior, it develops the kind of protection that’s preventive and permanent – with our children all the time and all their lives – critical thinking and resilience. And we know from the research that it increases academic as well as social success.

[The authors of “Parenting in the Age of Digital Technology” are Ellen Wartella, PhD, Vicky Rideout, MA, Alexis R. Lauricella, PhD, and Sabrina L. Connell, MA. Dr. Lynn Schofield is author of The Parent App: Understanding Families in the Digital Age.]

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