Study: Our kids are addicted to screens—and it's our fault

As much as we can feel powerless over our children’s devices, a new study from Common Sense Media says that they’re taking a lot of cues from us.
Photo: iStockphoto

Photo: iStockphoto

As the mother of a pre-teen kid, I consider conflict my daily meditation practice: I tell myself to breathe and count to 10 every time one of my prods and reminders is met with another snarky “I know, Mom.” And nothing causes more battles than his devices. When he’s on them, he’s a zombie, and it’s impossible to redirect his attention to homework, chores, bedtime or even just a friendly conversation.

Sound familiar? According to a new survey the US not-for-profit research group Common Sense Media, one-third of parents and teens say they argue with each other on a daily basis about device use. The report — Technology Addiction: Concern, Controversy and Finding Balance — polled American parents with kids aged 12 to 18 on their tech use and its impact on family life.

Among the other sobering findings: 50 percent of the kids say they are “addicted” to their mobile devices; 72 percent of teens and 48 percent of parents feel they must immediately respond to texts, social networking messages, and other notifications; and 69 percent of parents and 78 percent of teens check their devices at least hourly.

The long term consequences of screen time on our children’s brains and behavior is still largely unknown. Early studies show that multitasking can make us less capable of deep concentration and focus, and that reducing our face-to-face social contact may reduce our capacity for empathy. Most research has been on adults, however, with only limited studies on the young children or tweens. As Common Sense points out, “given the many physical, cognitive, social, and emotional changes that occur from early childhood through adolescence and beyond, it is appropriate to treat findings with caution, as research on adults may not always generalize to younger populations.” In other words, whether we like it or not, our plugged-in kids are lab rats in a massive experiment and the conditions are becoming ever more intense.

Outside of school and homework, tweens spend almost six hours a day using media, including TV, games, social media, web surfing reading and listening to music. Even the preschool set is tech-literate: 38 percent of children under two have accessed a mobile device. Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics announced it was overhauling its recommendations about media engagement to reflect the times. “In a world where ‘screen time’ is becoming simply ‘time,’ our policies must evolve or become obsolete,” the organization noted.

The increasing ubiquity of electronic devices in schools, daycares and home makes it impossible to rule out screen time. It’s like telling kids not to breathe. Still, we have to figure out how our kids can use media safely and responsibly. And we do have power here, because when it comes to media use, our kids are also paying attention to what we do. As much as we can feel powerless over our children’s devices, it turns out that they’re taking a lot of cues from us.

Here’s what they’re seeing: in one survey of tweens, half said their parents checked their devices too often and a third felt “unimportant” due to this parental inattention. In the Common Sense study, 56 percent of parents confessed to looking at mobile devices while they drive and half of the teens said they see their parents do this. Even babies are busting us for being distracted — psychologists at Indiana University observed playtime interactions with caregivers and infants, and found that adults whose eyes wander to check email and texts, for example, may be raising their children to have shorter attention spans.

Full confession: Instead of talking with my son at breakfast this morning, I sat beside him, working on this very blog post, all while checking my email and scrolling through my morning newsfeeds. But, lesson learned. Common Sense has excellent suggestions on how to reduce conflict by creating a healthy family media diet. One place to start is to fret less about our kids’ screen time and focus instead on being wiser about our own.

Read more:
6 simple ways to get a handle on your kids’ screen time
26 best Canadian books for big kids
10 awesome movies to watch with your tween daughter

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