Children spend more hours engaging with screens than with any other activity. Research has found that media use can have a host of both positive and negative effects on child development, though it depends on both the time spent and content being consumed. Despite this, many parents do not understand how to help children manage screen time effectively. We examine family media use patterns, parental rules regarding media, the myriad of ways parents talk about media to their children, and parental attitudes regarding media. Each are important in understanding how media might influence child outcomes. We also offer three suggestions for future research. First, we need more research on best practices regarding both traditional and newer forms of media. Second, we need greater understanding on how parents and children use media together and whether this might strengthen or diminish the parent/child relationship. Finally, we are in need of studies that examine the long-term impact of media use on child social, psychological, physical, and emotional outcomes. A greater understanding of the family dynamics surrounding child media use may help children not only survive, but thrive in our current media culture.
How should parents monitor and interact with their children around media?
Research suggests that parents should not only watch TV, videos, or games with their children, but also talk about what they are seeing on the screen, try to help their child process it (especially if it’s violent or inappropriate), and try to relate it to their child’s life and experiences. This way parents can keep track of what their child is seeing and experiencing online, and the stage is set for the child to feel comfortable bringing their concerns and questions to parents when they encounter upsetting, confusing, or problematic content/social interactions as they grow older.
Why does media use become problematic in some children and families, but not others?
Everyone’s personality is different, and therefore everyone is going to develop their own particular media preferences, habits, and responses to media. In some families, children who are more difficult to parent might wind up having heavier media habits because it is used as a calming or behavioral tool. Some parents report using media as a way to escape challenging family dynamics — looking to their phone to avoid interactions. When media isn’t monitored by parents, some children watch videos, find YouTube content, or play video games that are too mature or violent for the child’s developmental stage, and this has been linked with more behavioral problems. Therefore, changing to more positive or prosocial content may be one of the most realistic ways for media-heavy families to influence their child’s behavior.
Have mobile devices made parenting harder or easier?
While there’s no research on this topic exactly, we do know that mobile device use by children is harder for parents to monitor and co-view. Parental controls and monitoring software/apps are increasingly available, but since none have been studied, parents will have to try them out and decide if they work for their needs. Parents also describe that mobile devices make work-life balance more feasible, but there’s also a lot more work-life spillover that can happen as a result. Multitasking between the content of a mobile device (email, news, texting) and child behavior management is also described as particularly challenging.
- Media use interacts with all levels of the child’s context: the child’s traits, their family dynamics, their school and community, and their larger culture — and media therefore needs to be researched taking these child-specific contextual factors into account.
- The how of media use — who watches with the child, how they interact during and after viewing media together, and how the parent helps the child understand media — is just as important as the what (content) and how much (screen time) of media use.
- Although media has been shown to distract family members from interacting with each other, more needs to be known about how digital media can help promote more family engagement and connection.
Guidelines for Parents
- Watch media together with kids and use developmentally appropriate parental mediation strategies (active mediation, restrictive mediation, co-viewing) to help kids understand what they’re seeing.
- Be proactive about using media, and create a family media plan with rules for what type of content your children will view, how much time, and digital manners.
- Avoid “technoference:” Try to not allow individual media use to interfere with family relationships — particularly at mealtimes, playtime, and bedtime. Try to be aware of the role media is playing in your family dynamics (for example, stress relief, calming down, avoiding social interactions, or causing more stress).
- Parents and children should consider utilizing media to connect with each other, including texting, video chatting, engaging on social media together, and more. This should supplement rather than replace face to face interactions and should be developmentally appropriate.
- We also support the recommendations made by the American Academy of Pediatrics and encourage families to implement these in their homes.
Coyne, S.M., Radesky, J., Collier, K.M., Gentile, D.A., Linder, J.R., Nathanson, A.I., Rasmussen, E.E., Reich, S.M., & Rogers, J. (2017). Parenting & Digital Media. Pediatrics, 140(140S2). doi:10.1542/peds.2016-1758N
The analysis, conclusions, and recommendations contained in each paper are solely a product of the individual workgroup and are not the policy or opinions of, nor do they represent an endorsement by, Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development.