Want to get your kids off their phones and back into the real world? A new study suggests that before you launch into the lecture about how you only see the tops of their heads these days, you may want to take stock of what your own technology habits are telling your kids.
Parents are spending an average of 9 hours and 22 minutes with screen media per day, the study found — and only an hour and a half of that is for work. That means parents use their devices overall as much as their teens and tween. In fact the average parent spends about a half-hour more each day in the glow of screens than the average teen, excluding school or time spent with homework.
Common Sense Media, a non-profit devoted to studying the effects of media on children, asked 1,700 parents about their media habits, their children's habits and how they view and manage technology as a family. The study focused on parents of kids between the ages of 8 and 18.
Jim Steyer, Common Sense Media's executive director, said he was shocked by the parents' screen time. "I thought it would be four or five hours — it was more than twice that," he said. Television was, by far, the most common type of media parents named in the study, followed by video games and social networking.
Against that backdrop, some of the other responses from parents seem a little contradictory. For example, 43 percent of parents say they're concerned their kids spend too much time online, but 78 percent thought they themselves were good role models. For Steyer, that doesn't quite line up.
"Parents are the most important teachers and role models that children have," said Jim Steyer, executive director of Common Sense. "This is a classic 'Do as I say, not as I do.'"
Using a lot of technology doesn't seem to make parents any less wary of the Internet. For example, the study found that Hispanic parents, who spent an average of 10 hours a day with online media and were more likely to talk with their kids about online activities, were actually the most concerned about negative effects on their children.
Part of the reason for that apparent contradiction may come down to fully understanding what the Internet can be used for, said Lisa Narravette, adviser to the President of the National Council of La Raza, perhaps aggravated by the fact that fewer Hispanic families have access to broadband and the full opportunities of the Internet. "They may not see the positive sides for their kids. That this is not just entertainment, but it's about their kids' education, or that they'll need to be online for their jobs," she said.
Overall, the vast majority of parents surveyed — 94 percent — said that they think technology overall has benefits for their children. They were more split on whether social media use was good or bad for kids on balance: Forty-four percent of parents said social media sites help their child's relationships with friends, as compared to 15 percent who worried that they hurt those relationships.
These more varied responses shows that the discussion around tech use has evolved, researchers said, from being one purely centered on time spent with media to one centered on what people do with that time.
"The hand-wringing isn't going on any longer," said researcher Ellen Wartella, director of the Center on Media and Human Development at Northwestern University. The discussion, she said, is evolving and what's interesting about this study is how it shows the changing ways that parents are coming to terms with a world where online media is ubiquitous.
Unlike Steyer, Wartella was not surprised by how many hours parents spend with online media. But she was intrigued to see how many parents are monitoring their kids' technology use, and the extent to which they place a higher value on security rather than privacy. Two-thirds of parents say that it's more important for them to monitor their kids' media use than to respect their personal space online.
Wartella said that she wonders how that sentiment, combined with the fact that companies are monitoring their users more than ever, will affect society's attitudes toward privacy.
"I'll be curious to see how much we value privacy" in the future, she said. "Kids today are, to an extent, used to the 'surveillance state.' I assume most of them know that when they go to YouTube, it's tracking their history and their comments. But parents also contribute to that."
Before you add that to that long list of things you may be doing wrong, however, take a deep breath. The point of the study, Steyer said, is not to say that all media use is bad — or to guilt parents about overreacting to one thing or another.
And while he would suggest that everyone may want to cut back a little, he said the study's real purpose is to get parents thinking.
"You can use your example to teach your kids that technology is a tool and can be great, depending on how you use it and how much," he said. Most importantly, he said, parents have to set their own rules about what is a healthy technology diet and stick to it; that seems to have the most effect on influencing what their kids do.
Plus, it's nice for your kids to see more than just the top of your head every once in a while.