In a world where we are constantly tweeting, texting, Googling and checking e-mail, technology addiction is a real concern for today's kids. Yet parents are often unable to unplug from their own digital devices, research suggests. A recent national survey conducted by Common Sense Media, which included nearly 1,800 parents of children aged eight to 18, found that parents spend an average of nine hours and 22 minutes every day in front of various screens—including smartphones, tablets, computers and televisions. Of those, nearly eight hours are for personal use, not work. (The survey included people from a wide range of socioeconomic classes and fields, who may or may not use computers at their job all day.)
Perhaps even more surprising is that 78 percent of parents surveyed believe they are good role models for how to use digital technology. Multimedia are designed to be engaging and habit-forming, so we do not even realize how much time we spend when we heed the siren call of our devices, says Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist and author of The Big Disconnect (HarperCollins, 2013).
This can be a double whammy for children, who not only feel that their parents are ignoring them or do not find them as engaging as the screen but who also learn to mimic their parents' behavior, Steiner-Adair notes. Studies show that greater use of technology among tweens and teens correlates with shorter attention spans, a preference for digital time over physical activity and worse performance in school. Toddlers and infants also have a harder time learning emotional and nonverbal cues because their parents constantly have what psychologists call “still face phenomenon” from concentrating on mobile devices.
The good news, however, is that if parents use screen time for shared activities with a child—watching a movie or playing an educational game together, for example—it can enhance the child's learning. According to the survey, 94 percent of parents recognize that technology can be used to support their children's education. The key is to limit and track kids' time with technology and set rules for themselves, too. Modeling healthy media habits can start with something as simple as making the family dinner table a device-free zone.