The other is that parents have seemingly given up the battle and instead use video game systems and mobile devices as a digital baby-sitter, allowing their children to spend hours each day in front of the screen. So what's the truth? According to a study by Northwestern University, there are some surprising revelations about the real role of digital media in our families' lives.
The study was conducted by Northwestern's Center on Media and Human Development and headed by Ellen Wartella. The researchers conducted a national survey of over 2,300 parents of children between the ages of zero and eight, and the final report was called Parenting in the Age of Digital Technology. They released a summary of their findings last week and presented details at a recent conference in DC. What they found is that today's parents grew up with digital technology, so they have a different outlook from that of parents of previous generations. Instead of battling it out with their children, parents are more accepting of the role of digital technology in their families.
The scientists further examined three types of media environments that parents create. They found 39 percent of families are media-centric, meaning that there's a strong presence of digital media in the home. Parents consume an average of 11 hours of screen time a day, which includes TV, computers, and other digital media. Children in these families consume an average of 4.5 hours a day, and 80 percent of parents in these families say they are very or somewhat likely to use the TV to keep their children occupied when they're busy with home chores.
The study also found that 45 percent of families are media-moderate, meaning that while parents and children consume 3-5 hours of screentime a day, they are more likely to enjoy outdoor activities than media-centric families. Meanwhile, 16 percent of families are media-light. These families spend less than 2 hours a day in front of a screen, and they're much less dependent on digital media as a means of getting kids to bed or as a preferred activity.
However, 70 percent of families say that digital media does not make the job of parenting any easier. And they don't jump to media first to keep their kids occupied. Instead, 88 percent turn to toys or activities first, followed by books (79 percent) and TV (78 percent). Only 37 percent say they turn to smartphones or iPads to keep their kids busy.
Parents had a positive view of TV, computers, and mobile devices when it comes to the effect on their children's academic studies and creativity. They did not hold the same view of video games, however. They shared concerns about the effect of video games on children's attention span, academic studies, behavior, and sleep. And parents' biggest concern about the effects of digital media related to children's lack of physical activity.
What's interesting is how news outlets chose to headline the study. Some, like CNN, went with the headline U.S. parents not worried about kids' digital-media use, while others, like the Examiner, led off with the title Parents of young children accept all media except video games. There's a bit of a contradiction in the study that's revealed in the choice of headlines, and it does raise questions that call for more research.
I think there's a grey area when it comes to defining digital media and video games. According to the study, parents have a positive view of smartphones, computers, and mobile devices, but they have a negative view of video games. But it's likely that if a young child asks to use his parent's phone, he wants to play Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja, not browse a weather app or get driving directions. Video games can't really be lumped in with computers, TV, smartphones, or tablets because games are content, while the others are the devices that run that content. And while video games can potentially have a negative effect on children's physical activity, attention span, and lack of sleep, wouldn't all screen time have the same potential for these negative effects? Hopefully the full study gives some more details into how parents view other specific activities besides video games while using digital media. Meanwhile, this study does challenge common perceptions of the role of digital media in the family, and it offers proof that there's a generational shift in how it's viewed by today's parents.
The MMO Family column is devoted to common issues with families and gaming. Every other week, Karen looks at current trends and ways to balance family life and play. She also shares her impressions of MMO titles to highlight which ones are child-friendly and which ones offer great gaming experiences for young and old alike. You are welcome to send feedback or Wonka Bars to firstname.lastname@example.org.