Parenting in the age of (runaway) digital media

A newly released report from the Center on Media and Human Development at Northwestern University tells us some things we probably already know and some other things that ought to disturb us a little. Our good friend Dr. Lynn Schofield Clark, author of The Parent App, walks us through the main findings and offers some analysis in a post at Psychology Today, and it’s worth a read, especially if you’re  a parent.

On the “we knew that” front, Clark notes that modern parents are “much more comfortable with communication technologies than were the generation of parents who preceded them” and that “these parents are using technologies like the TV, smartphones, computers, and tablets to manage family life and to keep children occupied.” Also, “joint media engagement drops off markedly for children who are six or older.” The report also confirms the explosion of smartphones and tablets “in the homes of those who have children aged 0-8, noting that 71% of these households have a smartphone, 42% have a tablet device, and 35% have both.”

The “slightly disturbing” part includes the revelation that “[d]igital media don’t even make the list of things that parents are ‘very concerned’ about,” which seems a little at odds with the finding that “most parents (70%) don’t think that these technologies have made parenting any easier.”

Then there’s the “more disturbing” category:

39% of families are media-centric, consuming an average of 11 hours of screen time each day. These families are very or somewhat likely to use tv to keep children occupied (81% say this). About half of these families leave the tv on all or most of the time and about half (44%) have a tv in the child’s bedroom. Children in these families spend an average of 4.5 hours a day with screen media (remember, these are homes with children who are 0 – 8 years old). Lower income families tend to fall into this category.

As I say, worth a read.

Clark reveals some important insights into what it all means and offers some useful advice (being both a leading scholar in the field and a mother of two affords her a good bit of expertise into the challenges facing today’s parents). For instance:

Instead of looking for guidelines about how much is too much screen time, we need to encourage parents to think about teaching time management and we need to provide young people with opportunities to learn how to remove themselves from or end screen time. Michael Rich, Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School and advice author at, suggested that families consider instituting a “digital Sabbath” in which they experience life together and apart from technologies. He also noted that this is often harder for parents than for their children. Barbara Fiese, Professor at the U of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, noted the importance of encouraging healthy habits in the whole “family ecology” of which media ecology is one part.


We need to remember that we don’t all experience media in the same way.

This was one of the points I wanted to make, as I observed that not all families even want to adopt a “media-light” position. I noted that the “helicopter parent” or “concerted cultivation” approach to parenting tends to keep families too busy to watch television and is framed in relation to viewing all leisure as a waste of time. Media are only seen as positive in these families when they fit within what in my book The Parent App I term an ethic of expressive empowerment. However, not all parents can engage in the kind of concerted cultivation activities that tend to make media use lighter. They may face economic, health, language, or job- or transportation-related challenges. Or their neighborhood’s not safe and so staying inside with media is a positive alternative.

This is just a sampling. I strongly encourage you to take five minutes and go read Clark’s post at PT. I often tell people that I have the smartest circle of friends of anyone I know, and Lynn is a sparkling example of what I’m talking about. If you’re a parent, or if you know one whose home has been Borged by digital media to the detriment of the family’s health, pass it along.


  • Thanks, this is a helpful overview of some of the parameters of the debate about families, joint media engagement, and the importance of evaluating what it is we are even talking about when we reference “screen time” activities. A “digital sabbath” mentality isn’t the worst thing I’ve heard of if we’re talking the forms of screen time that involve television programs as babysitters for hours, or playing video games non-stop on a bright sunny day.

    Yet as a parent of a five-year old who loves books but has reading challenges, I have gone from skeptic to appreciative fan of certain types of digital media, such as Bookboard’s ebook offerings (not game-like books, but digital fascimiles of traditional print books) that expand the options and approaches we use in our home to deal with reading challenges. A helpful article by another librarian who is incredibly thoughtful about these issues and curates the library for Bookboard can be found here. Such an important topic!

  • Re “provide young people with opportunities to learn how to remove themselves from or end screen time.” An especially sticky wicket, trying to get your kid off the computer — if he’s been on a short time, he’s angry it’s not enough. If he’s been on a long time, he becomes grouchy. (I use “he” because that’s my experience with my son.)

  • For the computer we use a timer. Each kid gets 30 minutes on weekdays and 1 hour on weekends. If they forget to set the timer, they’re off. For TV, they obviously get more, but I do declare “Sabbaths” once in a while to get us all out of the habit. We also do game nights for evenings without TV. None of us have smartphones so they aren’t an issue.

    One thing that surprised me in the article was people talking about being late for school because they can’t get the kids off the media. The easy fix there is to not turn anything on. We don’t turn on any media in the mornings at all. It’s a very nice way to start the day.

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