It is a tricky thing to look at one’s own biases: it can make us feel somewhat vulnerable. In the case of screen time however, it is essential that we do so.
Professor Andy Przybylski (University of Oxford) opened the one-day event on Screen Time I had the good fortune to attend, by commenting on the very existence of the phrase “screen time”. Is there similar examination of “book time” or “food time” for example? There is an unfair rhetoric of analogue time being wholesome, good and entirely helpful, whereas screen time is seen as inherently bad, distracting, unhealthy and leading to nothing of value.
This ‘displacement hypothesis’ is such that every digital minute is seen as taking away from an analogue minute, with the insinuation that digital minutes are taking you further away from you being your best, most successful self.
Professor Przybylski argued that the evidence simply doesn’t back up this theory. Any correlational findings (remember, correlation does not equal causation) are so statistically insignificant they don’t justify focusing on – less than 1% variability in terms of correlational findings around sleep, health, functioning and behaviour.
So what does this mean for parents?
Simply put, there is an over-emphasis on limits and not enough focus on thinking critically about how we use screens, particularly how we use screens with our children.
Alexandra Samuel, using data from surveys of 10,000+ North American Parents*, found three main parenting approaches to technology: Limiters, Enablers and Mentors.
Limiters focus on minimizing access to technology.
Enablers put few restrictions on access to technology.
Mentors actively guide their children in the use of technology.
What is especially interesting about these approaches, is that for school-aged students, the children of Limiters were twice as likely to access porn, or post rude/hostile comments online. They were also three times as likely to impersonate a classmate, peer or adult (see Samuel’s article in the Atlantic for more information).
Likening the Limiter approach to abstinence-only sex education, Samuel argues, “Shielding kids from the Internet may work for a time, but once they do get online, limiters’ kids often lack the skills and habits that make for consistent, safe, and successful online interactions.”
Mentors typically make up a third of parents overall, but Mentors are equally represented in each age range, suggesting that this might be an approach that works effectively throughout your child’s life.
What we like best about these findings is that they reinforce the idea that establishing and maintaining positive relationships with your children around technology is beneficial to everyone. We want our child(ren) to come to us if they encounter problems, knowing we won’t freak out or overreact. For this to happen, we have to show that we care about and value their digital world in the same way we show that we value their other activities, e.g. reading and sports.
Devorah Heitner, author of Screenwise, suggests, “Take an interest in what your kids do in their digital lives. Learn together with your kids. Play Minecraft with them or share photos on Instagram with them. Show them what you are doing online and ask them for advice about your Facebook posts or LinkedIn Profile. Your goal is not to become an expert in technology but to get a window into how your kids think about, and interact with, technology.“
With an awareness and understanding that no parent is all-Mentor all of the time, how can we engage in more Mentor-like behaviour with our children? How can we move from being Media Police, to being Media Mentors?
My colleague Daniel Johnston and I came up with a few suggestions, which we have organised into a March Media Mentor Month Calendar (see below).
We know as busy parents, it is unlikely you will get to all of these ideas (especially not only in March!), but we hope this provides a resource for you to explore and find ideas of activities to help you develop a positive digital relationship with your family.
Please feel free to share your ideas with us in the comments below, or add the hashtag #mediamentormonth on social media posts.
* “About the data: All the charts in this article are drawn from a series of surveys conducted on Springboard America and the Angus Reid Forum between March 2014 and February 2016. More than 11,000 surveys were completed by parents of children under 18; each individual survey sampled between 500 and 1000 North American parents.” Please note this data has not been made publicly available and is not peer reviewed.