Most Parents Are Terrible Screen Time Role Models

Little girl drawing alone while her parents spend their time networking with app on their mobile phone ignoring their daughter

“Do as I say, not as I do” is never responsible parenting, and more often than not, children see the hypocrisy. A new study reveals considerable cognitive dissonance when it comes to parenting and screen time. The overwhelming majority of parents are concerned that their children spend too much time on computers, mobile devices and other digital screens, yet they themselves spend as much or more time plugged in. This suggests that parents are not serving as effective role models, though it may also indicate that they underestimate the benefits of technology for their children.

Reviewing The Research

The study is part of a joint effort by Common Sense Media, a non-profit group that researches the impact of media on childhood development, and the Center on Media and Human Development at Northwestern University in Chicago. It surveyed 1,800 parents who have children between the ages of 8 and 18, and asked them questions about their own media use and their view of media’s impact on their children. The results reveal a significant disconnect between parents’ intentions for their children and their own behavior.

Parents reported strong concerns about how excessive screen time was affecting their children. Some 67 percent of adults stated that it was more important to track their children’s device and web use than it was to give them privacy. Meanwhile, 56 percent of respondents feared that their children were growing addicted to technology, while 50 percent worried that they were becoming less physically active. Another 38 percent of parents expressed concern about their children’s sleep habits and communication skills. Many also worried that their children were sharing too much private information online and that they were viewing violent and/or pornographic content.

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Amid expressing these concerns, the average parent admitted to being exposed to 9 hours and 22 minutes of screen time each day, of which only an hour and a half was related to actual work. Ironically, this is a half an hour longer than the average child’s screen time once time spent on schoolwork is subtracted. Most parents, however, do not seem to notice this obvious contradiction. While 48 percent were worried that their kids spent too much time on their devices, 78 percent believe that they set good examples as parents.

Demographic Differences

Besides revealing a glaring disconnect between parent’s instructions and behavior, the study also uncovered significant demographic differences. Parents’ screen time was negatively correlated with socioeconomic status; adults with high school degrees or less spent 9 hours a day plugged in compared to 6 hours among those with at least a bachelor’s degree. Rates also varied by ethnicity: whites averaged 6.5 hours a day of personal screen time, while Latino parents averaged 9 hours, and black parents 10.5 hours. Roughly two-thirds of black and Latino parents were concerned about their children’s media use, compared to 51 percent of white parents. Latino parents were also more consistent than other groups about monitoring their children’s devices and social media accounts.

Considering The Contradiction

To the extent that most children should cut back on screen time, the study suggests that parenting is a significant barrier to accomplishing this goal. Children are likely to notice their parents’ heavy media use, and will thus not take seriously instructions to cut back. The lesson is simple, yet hard for many to follow: Before parents can tell their children to unplug, they will have to do so themselves.

A more positive interpretation of the study, however, is that parents gain meaningful benefits from media use but underestimate the benefits for their children. The internet and mobile devices provide an opportunity for parents to have fun, socialize, educate themselves, and otherwise enrich their lives. This may explain why low-income and minority parents are especially likely to use devices so much, to the extent that they would not otherwise have access to such enrichment.

Parents may thus be less concerned that modern technology is inherently bad for their kids as that their kids are not making effective use of it. This is consistent with the study’s specific results: Virtually all parents, for example, thought that modern technology was beneficial for their children overall, but they were more circumspect about specific technologies such as social media. This study could spur parents to think about how their children can best use devices and the internet, showing them productive and enriching uses while discouraging what they view as harmful behaviors. Even with their present behaviors, then, parents can serve as good role models for their children, though some reduction in screen time is probably warranted.

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