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Most parents are not all that worried about the role of technology in their children’s lives. And they are more likely to rely on books and analog activities than digital devices to keep their children busy. Those are the conclusions of a new survey released this week. Based on a nationally representative survey of more than 2,300 parents of children from birth to 8-years-old, the study examines how media is being incorporated into family life.
We sat down with Alexis Lauricella, one of the study’s coauthors to hear more. Lauricella is a research associate at Northwestern University’s Center on Media and Human Development. Her work examines children’s learning from media as well as parents’ and teachers’ attitudes toward media and how they use it with young children.
Fred Rogers Center: Your new study examines how families use technology as a parenting tool. Why is this an important topic now?
Alexis Lauricella: There’s been a boom in digital technologies and applications created specifically for young children. Today, children are so actively involved with so many different media platforms. Parents are using and carrying these mobile devices with them and we felt it was important to understand how parents are using these technologies in their family lives, beyond just child access and use.
FRC: One of the study’s coauthors, Ellen Wartella, called your findings a “generational shift in parental attitudes about technology’s role in children’s lives.” How so?
AL: I think it’s a shift in the kind of experience and comfort parents have with technology. The people who are parents now grew up with technology, or at least with some of these technologies, much more than their parents did. And there’s less panic; the panic appears to be less extreme than it once was. Technology is just one of the many concerns parents today have about their children, but it’s not the top one.
FRC: Maybe because there is so much for parents to be worried about these days?
AL: Yes, and technology doesn’t top their list. We found parents were more concerned about things like health and safety, social and emotional skills, or behavior. But remember, a lot of these are really, really young children. We surveyed parents of children under age eight. So these are parents that are generally less likely to have seen a lot of the concerning behaviors in their children that the popular press reports on so frequently—like being addicted to computers or not wanting to turn off the TV. Parents of young children have a little more control.
Another question we asked was, “Did media make parenting easier?” And most said, “Not really.”
FRC: Really? One recent article I read called the iPhone “the most effective tool in human history to mollify a fussy toddler.” It described parents pulling out iPhones to keep children quiet in a restaurant or in the back seat of the car. But your findings show that’s not happening as much as we may think?
AL: Yes, that’s right. It turns out parents use a range of tools to help them as parents, and these include new mobile screen devices like smartphones and tablets. But even more regularly, parents are relying on more traditional tools like toys and activities to help them out. We were surprised by that. We saw a lot of media use in restaurants, so we created scenarios and asked parents about what they do in each type of situation. For example, “When you are making dinner and you want to keep your children busy or occupied, how likely are you to give them a book, let him watch a TV show or DVD, let him play with a handheld game player, give him a mobile device to use (such as a smartphone), let him use a computer, or give him an activity to do or toy to play with?” In general, parents said they were much more likely to give them a book or toy than use a digital device like an iPad.
It was not as frequent as we hear about in the popular press. It’s not nearly as dramatic. There’s still a little bit of a lack of access. Not everyone has these devices. And they use a whole host of different tools when they are trying to calm their child down, for example, or to get them ready for bed. Most parents don’t immediately just go for their smartphone. Access is definitely increasing. And I wouldn’t be surprised if these behaviors continue to change. But right now new technology is not the catchall solution.
The big take-home point was that media is now just one of many tools parents use, one part of family life. Parents are not just using media as a pacifier; they are using it as just one of many tools in their repertoire of parenting tools.
FRC: Tell me about the three different types of family media environments your research identified: media centric, media moderate and media light. How are they different?
AL: The reason that we included these groups was that it was helpful in providing an understanding of the family environment.
Forty-five percent of the families we surveyed fell into the media-moderate category, where parents use screen media just under five hours a day.
Thirty-nine percent of our respondents fell into the media-centric group. These are families that are high media users. They leave the TV on all or most of the time, regardless of whether anyone is watching. Almost 50 percent of the children have TVs in their bedrooms. They report that they enjoy watching TV together as a family activity. Parents in this group are more likely to say that they would use media to occupy their children when they’re doing chores or making dinner.
Media-light families, by contrast, are just 16 percent of our respondents. Parents in the media light families spend less than two hours per day with screen media and their homes are less oriented toward screen media.
FRC: Do you have different findings by race or income?
AL: We grouped the families and then looked at demographics within these groups. And there was a great deal of variation. Lots of different families land in each of these different types of groups. But we did find a significant difference in income, race, and education across the groups. The media-centric parents had the lowest income level.
FRC: Are you a parent? What kind of media environment are you creating in your family?
AL: Sort of. I’m engaged to a man who has two young children who live at our house half of the time. These are really tough questions. Maybe I’m not a good example because we’re not in a traditional family, but maybe we’re the new normal. Our house is relatively media light. That’s largely a function of what goes on at the other house—which is more media heavy. We’re trying to create a kind of balance all the time, like many families.
I think parents are constantly negotiating this and there’s a whole host of factors that play into it. It’s too simplistic to try to make these causal relationships when there’s often a whole lot of things going on. In our house, we have iPads, smartphones, DVRs, and TV. We have access and like the parents in our survey, we negotiate when things are used. And that negotiation exists not just for the technology, but there’s also a negotiation about when Legos come out, versus Play-Doh or dolls. It’s part of the many kinds of negotiation that parents do all the time. The media always focuses on the technology, but it’s just a part of what parents are dealing with.
That’s the stuff we can’t capture in this data. We don’t know what else is going on. We don’t know if the parents who watch lots of TV in their family also spend a whole lot of time playing with Legos. Maybe they are at home more or maybe the other children spend more time in day care. It’s just hard to know.
FRC: What’s next? Do we know anything about how growing up in different types of media environments affects young children? What research are you working on?
AL: There are still more questions to ask about content. Are children in different family media environments watching different content? Is it child-directed or adult-directed? Or is it more of a mix? How does the family media environment affect parent-child interaction? What’s going on in terms of parents talking during media use in these three types of families? How are these families associated with homework practices or school success, for example? These are all things we haven’t looked at yet.
We also oversampled Latino families and we are working to analyze that data for another report.
AL: One reason is that they are an increasing proportion of the U.S. population. And there is not a whole lot of research on Latino families especially with regard to media use. We’ve seen in the past that media use is higher, especially with Latino and black families. In terms of culture, there are also ways in which Latino families are potentially different—in terms of family life, and we’d be interested in learning if and how this is related to media use.
I feel like there’s more and more recognition of this now, but the US is a very diverse place and there is a wide range of economic and educational opportunities. That’s why it’s important to get a real national sample, as we did with this survey. The truth is we still very rarely hear from certain groups when we conduct media related research.
FRC: Like that one New York Times reporter who observed his sisters’ children using iPads to keep them quiet in a fancy restaurant isn’t the norm in every part of the US?
AL: Exactly. Access to these technologies is not yet universal. And families aren’t using them in the same ways. We wanted to really look at families’ technology practices from a national perspective.
On June 4, Northwestern University’s School of Communication and the Center on Media and Human Development and the National Center on Family Literacy are hosting a policy conference to discuss these new findings in Washington. Archives will be available online here.