Kids’ media use: A symptom of deeper family dynamics

holding hands

Middle school was tough, wasn’t it? As my middle school class prepared to graduate from the 8th grade, I was put in charge of gathering supplies for a time capsule that will eventually be opened in 2042. Since the eighth grade, I’ve forgotten everything we placed in that time capsule, except for one thing—a Boyz II Men cassette tape. And when I think of Boyz II Men, I think of middle school dances, and when I think of middle school dances, I think of the dance at which my seventh-grade girlfriend broke up with me. And when I really think about it, middle school kind of sucked.

I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way. I recently met with a group of high schoolers and asked them at what age kids feel most alone. Their answer: middle school. Those are tough years, for sure. That’s when kids are trying to find themselves. When social relationships become complicated. When establishing an identity becomes paramount. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that middle schoolers use media more than any other age group. In fact, the average U.S. middle schooler (ages 11-14) uses media for nearly 9 hours each day (and nearly 12 hours if we include media multitasking). Media use has become a way (maybe the way) for middle schoolers to navigate all the complications that come with this phase of their lives.

When we hear those numbers our first instinct as parents may be to take the phone away from our middle schoolers. To limit their time with video games. To turn the TV off more. While those are worthwhile methods of media parenting, research shows that middle schoolers’ media use may actually be a symptom of a much more important family dynamic.

A study published earlier this year in the Journal of Children and Media surveyed a nationally representative sample (1,727) of U.S. youth, and found that middle schoolers’ (ages 11-13) “recreational media use” was lower among kids with higher quality parent-child relationships. In other words, the better their relationship is with their parents, the less middle schoolers spend time with media.

As parents, these findings mean that one way to reduce the amount of time middle schoolers spend with media is perhaps to avoid our initial instinct to take media away, and instead, focus on creating a quality relationship with our pre-teen. In fact, one way to improve our connection with our kids is to join them in their media use. Sounds kind of counterintuitive, doesn’t it?

But if you think about it, changing our focus from “protecting” our kids to working on our relationship with them isn’t really that crazy, is it? It just seems crazy because we must go against our instincts as parents to circle the wagons to protect them, and to engage in parenting activities that will empower them.

The more I learn about media parenting, the more I’m convinced that empowering our kids is the way to protect them. And it doesn’t start with changing their behaviors. It starts with changing ours.


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