According to a small study published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies, parents are often controlling children’s online usage without considering the more prescient aspect: what their kids are watching.
The study, entitled “A Naturalistic Study of Child and Family Screen Media and Mobile Device Use,” took a deep dive into the everyday conversations and negotiations of 75 families with children. Using audio recording devices, the study recorded verbatim the interactions of the families’ mobile device use. (Imagine Alexa was listening in at your dining table, but instead of ordering items off Amazon for you, she was gathering truly useful data.) Some very interesting conclusions emerged.
While many of the parents reacted to amounts of device usage and tried to restrict it, they did so without thoroughly examining what their kids were actually watching.
It’s no wonder parents often focus on screen time: According to Common Sense Media Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens, children 8-12 years old use an average of six hours’ worth of entertainment media every day. But, the parents’ focus on screen time left the decision of content viewing up to the kids and siblings themselves.
“Parents should communicate with their children about what they are watching and their reactions to the content,” Dr. Sarah Domoff, assistant psychology professor at Central Michigan University and the study’s main author told Parentology. “Communication about content will have to be tailored to the child’s age. For example, parents may label behaviors or motivations of characters for young children, but could have a more advanced discussion about the content with their teenage children after they watch a TV show or movie together.”
Perhaps more alarming is that the study encompassed a rather young age group: kids from ages 1-13. That means that even toddlers, if they are in a house with older siblings, are still being exposed to more “adult” content even if there are screen restrictions in place. In addition, parents are also using their own devices around these children, so exposure to inappropriate content increases again.
How Do Parent Make the Shift?
A good start for parents trying to manage their child’s device usage is by recognizing that not all screen time is created equal. While one child might use a screen for interactive consumption – like browsing or playing games – another might use tech for creating digital art. For younger kids, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) pretty much nixes screen media other than video chatting, and even limits screen time to one hour per day up to age five. The AAP also recommends only “high-quality” programs.
But according to Sherry Nafeh MFT, a marriage and family therapist based in Los Angeles, “high quality” programming is overrated.
“Children younger than five years old will not benefit from high-quality programming,” she tells Parentology. “It’s important to limit screen time due to the lack of curriculum. Children need social interaction and parallel play to begin to learn about-task persistence, impulse control, emotional regulation and, most importantly, interacting and learning social cues between [themselves] and their caretaker. They will undoubtedly benefit more from mommy and me classes, music class, and open parallel play.”
The Other Big Problem: Media Multitaking
Also mentioned in the study was parents not paying attention to their family’s media multitasking. This is the all-too-familiar scenario of multiple family members on devices at the dining table, or watching TV while texting – and it’s been documented to have a pretty negative impact on people. In one study of 526 college students conducted at Texas A&M Institute for Neuroscience, the authors concluded, “the more one media multitasks, the poorer cognitive ability they command.”
“Media multitasking has created a wedge between generations,” notes Nafeh, who believes it has no positive benefits for family life. “It is severely affecting areas in the brain that we use to emotionally connect with people.”
For example, many parents allow their kids to entertain themselves with social media or gaming rather than spending time connecting and effectively communicating with them. “Due to the instant gratification [on digital devices], children will prefer to spend time on their phones, iPads or TV rather than connecting with family. Generally, media multitasking is correlated with lower cognitive ability, impulsivity, and lack of social skills.”
So, besides connecting more with what your kids might be watching, there might be reasons for everyone to stop the multitasking at home as well.
While this study on kids and smartphones/device usage was small, the results are significant. Dr. Domoff notes, “…we hope that our discovering the occurrence of parallel family media use and media multitasking at a young age prompts researchers to explore the impacts of multi-use in future longitudinal studies.”