Megan, a 34-year-old self-described technology junkie, admits that her involvement with digital devices concerns her. She works in the industry as an online marketing expert, but she is also a mother to 3- and a 4-and-a-half-year-old daughters. She and her friends worry and talk about how their own consumption of “screens” will affect their children as tweens and teenagers.

“I am totally immersed,” Megan told me, “but when my three-year-old said, ‘Mommy, put down your phone,’ I was brought up short. I was surprised that the subject had come up so early, that my younger daughter even notices how much time I spend on my smartphone.”

Will that 3-year-old change her tune once she has a phone of her own and computer access to the social networks her friends frequent? More than likely.

It’s no secret that most tweens and teens would rather spend time with their smart phones and other electronic devices than do homework, read, or interact with their families. The last point—strengthening family bonds, spending time together, and building memories—worries Megan the most.

The Center on Media and Human Development at Northwestern University defined parents by their media and technology use. Megan falls into the “media-centric” group categorized as “heavy users of old and new media.” According to the report, which studied parents of children age 8 and younger, these parents “actively used media or technology in parenting practices, whether to occupy, educate, discipline, reward, or calm their children.” This is behavior Megan is trying to avoid now and in the future.

When children move into their tween and teen years, digital “battles” appear to escalate in most families. An avalanche of books, articles, and apps have appeared to help parents cope with the excessive amounts of time adolescents spend on devices. And, there’s plenty on the perceived and real dangers facing children by digital consumption.

Not all ‘screens’ are bad

It is important to realize that depending on the child and the extent of digital involvement, carefully selected—and monitored—technology can be helpful. Some video games, for example, even certain ones without an educational mission, can have benefits.

One study, “More than just fun and games: the longitudinal relationships between strategic video games, self-reported problem solving skills, and academic grades,” looked at whether video game play affected problem-solving skills. The sample included over 1,400 adolescents and the study ran over four years of high school. The results showed “an indirect association between strategic video game play and academic grades, in that strategic video game play predicted higher self-reported problem solving skills, and, in turn, higher self-reported problem solving skills predicted higher academic grades.”

Why parents want to be mindful

Powerful evidence exists that Megan’s apprehension about her daughters’ future use of digital devices and about how it will affect them and family relationships is well founded:

  • A recent report by the National Center of Health Statistics states that five percent of children aged 12 to 17 spent at least five hours a day in front of a computer. Less than 3 in 10 stayed under the recommended maximum of two hours per day.
  • The CDC reported that less than half of the children ages 12 to 18 they surveyed—73 percent of which used a computer or watched television for more than the recommended two hours a day—don’t get adequate levels of exercise.
  • A study conducted this year by scientists at UCLA’s Children’s Digital Media Center reports that young people who immersed in “screens” are losing their ability to read emotional cues. The researchers had sixth graders “read” emotions on pictures and in videos. They removed access to all devices in one group for five days. The other group from the same school continued their current digital device patterns. The lead author, Yalda Uhls, noted, “If you’re not practicing face-to-face communication, you could be losing important social skills.” After a tech-free outdoor education camp of only five days, the group without devices was better able to read emotional cues than the “control group” of same age students.
  • Perhaps most disheartening to parents like Megan is a 2010study published in Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. It revealed that teens with excessive screen time—and less time doing homework or reading — were more likely to have weaker emotional attachments to parents, which the researchers suggest may invite risky behaviors later on. Included in the 2010 analysis were findings from a similar 2004 study, where researchers surveyed 3043 students who were aged 14 to 15 years old in 2004. “For every extra hour spent television viewing and playing on a computer, there was a 4% and 5% increase, respectively, in the risk of having low attachment to parents,” according to the study.

Given the findings about so many different aspects key to family bonds and social development, Megan is rightfully concerned. She might want to think about curtailing her own devotion to “screens” around her young children now. At the least, she can leave her self-proclaimed “addiction” at the office. We know that children tend to follow their parents’ patterns of media use.

Questions to ask yourself:

1)    How much recreational screen time does your child or teenager consume daily?

2)    Is there a TV set or an Internet connected electronic device in the child’s bedroom?

3)    How much time do YOU spend on “screens”—your smart phone, laptop, tablet?

4)    Are you feeding into your family’s digital addiction without realizing it?

photo credit: Monroe’s Dragonfly via photopin cc