Parents’ media use, parenting guilt, and our resistance to making needed changes

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As a parent and researcher, I’m concerned about the amount of time kids spend with screens. To understand why kids use screen media so much, we must first look to the people who have the most influence in the lives of kids–their parents.

In a 2015 study led by Dr. Alexis Lauricella at Northwestern University, a nationally representative sample of more than 2,300 parents of children ages 0-8 responded to a slew of questions about their attitudes toward media, demographic information, and their own and their children’s media use, all in effort to determine what factors help predict children’s media use. The strongest predictor of children’s television use was parents’ screen time. In fact, parent screen time, measured as the time parents spend with a variety of media devices, including TV, Internet, computers, tablet, smartphone, etc., predicted children’s time spent with TV, computers, smartphones, and tablets. The study also found that the more positive parents attitudes are about various media devices, the more time their kids spend with those devices.

So, this is where I need your help. As a media researcher I look at this study and the first thought that pops into my mind is that to change kids’ screen time we need to (1) change parents’ media habits and/or (2) change parents’ attitudes about media. But, I think that’s easier said than done. I’ve recently observed both on my own blog and on other parenting sites that the most-read articles are those telling parents that they’re doing a great job at parenting, but the less-read articles are those that are asking parents to make a change. Remember, I’m a parent too, and I likely add to this trend. I suppose I have several questions then:

  1. What keeps parents from changing their media habits? Is it a lack of knowledge about how their own habits affect their kids’ habits? Or is it something more?
  2. And once we know what these barriers are, what is the best way to overcome them? How do we convince parents to change their media-related attitudes and behaviors?

Which brings up the idea of parenting guilt. Do we read so much about how to become a good parent in the media that we’ve developed parenting guilt to the point that we simply avoid expert advice telling us that we need to change our parenting? And if so, is there a way to convince parents to make changes to their own media habits without instilling parenting guilt?

I suppose this post today is somewhat of a ramble, but today my mind is full of questions about how to help parents want to change. Until we get to the bottom of that question, I’m not sure we will really know how to change kids’ media habits. I’d love your thoughts on these questions. I hope to plan research to help address these questions, so this is a chance for you to help guide the development of research in this area.

7 thoughts on “Parents’ media use, parenting guilt, and our resistance to making needed changes

  1. Does the study explore the uses of the screens during said screen time for both parents and children? I have a pretty strict “No Screens for Babies” policy in my home, but don’t follow that rule so religiously myself. I’ve tried to eliminate screen time when my child is with me, but that’s hard when I use my phone for a lot of general day-to-day tasks, like recipes while I’m cooking, creating shopping lists, streaming music for kid dance parties in the kitchen… The barrier to changing habits may not be guilt, but an indication of how entrenched these technologies are in lives.

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  2. terry33

    Not all media (and books are a form of media) are created equally.

    For example, reading for pleasure is associated with better grades, and better career outcomes:

    “All the students who are highly engaged in reading achieve reading literacy scores that are significantly above the international mean, whatever their family background.”

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/education/2494637.stm

    “Reading was also linked to careers success, as the research finds 16-year-olds who read books at least once a month were significantly more likely to be in a professional or managerial job at 33 than those who didn’t read books at all.”

    https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2011/apr/07/computer-gamers-university-research

    “But, strikingly, this massive study showed that the difference between being raised in a bookless home compared to being raised in a home with a 500-book library has as great an effect on the level of education a child will attain as having parents who are barely literate (3 years of education) compared to having parents who have a university education (15 or 16 years of education)…”

    http://esciencenews.com/articles/2010/05/20/books.home.important.parents.education.determining.childrens.education.level

    Meanwhile:

    “No matter what your intelligence or social background, watching a lot of television during childhood means you are a lot less likely to have a degree by your mid-twenties, according to new University of Otago research.”

    http://archpedi.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=486063

    So parents can still sit down with a trashy, escapist novel and still be a good role model.

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  3. joellegilmore

    I agree that it is hard for parents to change our own habits (at least it is for me). I feel like we get into a routine that “works,” and hold onto it for dear life. We are all tired. We are all doing out best. Nobody is making the conscious decision to only put 50% effort into parenting.

    Dr. Lauricella’s study looks very interesting and important (though I can only access the abstract), and reminds me of how parents are so often told to model good eating habits for their children. We generally are under a lot of pressure, and need to look for balance when we can.

    I feel like screen time for parents can occasionally be considered a self-care technique, which I believe is crucial. I want my children to know that I care about myself so I can be a better caretaker to them. If that involves watching one extra episode on Saturday, I’m ok with that.

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  4. katyhorn

    Screens have become integral to our functioning. Virtually any and all reading I do, I do via a screen. I read how-to articles on my phone for how to create a more functional home. I search and view recipes on my laptop while cooking dinner. I read books for book club on my kindle. I communicate and coordinate with friends via Facebook and other social media. Screens do not control my life, they augment it. And as with anything, one can have good screen habits and bad screen habits. I strive to be self-reflective and be aware of my own habits and what seems to promote health and what doesn’t. I trust that my children will learn from my example of striving to be reflective and discerning about my own life habits and self-imposed limits.

    The biggest issue that I have with how studies are performed and reported is the very concept of “screen time” as one homogeneous entity of which more is worse and less and is better. There is no differentiation between the content and purpose of screen time. In an age when access to the internet really does make life better in almost every way, this kind of non-differentiation is incredibly unhelpful. It’s like saying the solution to obesity is telling people to eat fewer calories. It sends the message that all food is equally bad, that less is always more, and that most health problems are simply the result of a lack of self-control.

    I want to understand the nuances of screen behavior. Simply being told “do less” can only impute guilt because it is so vague and non specific. It doesn’t account for the ways that screens can be helpful, it doesn’t provide specific information regarding what unhealthy habits actually look like, and it doesn’t even begin to address why these unhealthy habits have taken hold or how to change them. To top it all off, it also feels inherently contradictory when the very means by which this information is delivered is via a screen.

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  5. Lacey

    I think part of the problem is because using technology isn’t necessarily a bad thing, so when something isn’t seen as being a bad habit or that there are “worse things you could be doing” it makes these habits seems less significant. However the truth is that these habits are what matters most. I think an easier way is to take the Good, Better , Best approach. It’s not about guilt, but evaluating the time and uses of screen time, yes it can be good, but is it the best thing you could be doing right now? And to go with an earlier post you had about empowering our kids, they go hand in hand, we use technology but we also talk about why we limit it in our home, about how others misuse these devices, ect..

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  6. My daughter loves the tablet, I tried to limit her screen time to once a week , since she’s so young, but its a bit difficult. It helps when we are travelling, it keeps her calm but I also want her to be aware that she’s travelling and explore the environment. This is a work in progress for me. Maybe I need to be more consistent.

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