Study: Mom plus dad equals less screen time
Stepfamilies and single-parent households set looser restrictions
Teenagers in intact, two-parent families spend significantly less time on technology and social media, according to a recent study.
The paper, which was based on a poll of 1,600 teenagers and conducted by the Institute for Family Studies and the Wheatley Institute, said teens in what these researchers called “intact families” spent about nine hours a day using digital technology. That may seem like a lot, but those in stepfamilies and single-parent households were online even longer, logging nearly 11 hours a day texting, playing video games, or scrolling through social media.
Single parents and stepparents had looser rules when it came to screen use, results showed. Fewer non-intact families banned devices after bedtime or during meals, for example. They were also less likely to limit a teen’s use of social media. Two-parent families were more likely to eat dinner together every day without media distractions and spend time doing non-tech activities such as hiking, playing board games, and playing sports.
“It’s not to blame those families, but to appreciate who is most vulnerable,” said Jenet Erickson, an associate professor at Brigham Young University and one of the study’s authors. The study noted that, regardless of family structure, nearly all surveyed teenagers spent “a staggering amount of time” using technology.
Erickson said teens in non-intact families were also less likely to participate in extracurricular activities—something that would normally keep teenagers socially engaged and away from screens. Former single parent Gayla Grace said teens often return to an empty home, allowing them to spend more time online, unmonitored.
“You’re at work until 5 o’clock and the kids get off the bus at 3, so there’s nobody there,” said Grace, who’s now remarried and has been part of a blended family for 27 years. For teenagers in single-parent families, this means they will be left to their own devices—literally and figuratively.
Having two parents in the home helps, but may pose its own challenges, especially in a stepfamily. A teenager might not have the same trust and respect for a stepdad as his biological dad.
When it comes to managing technology use, Grace said the biggest hurdle for stepfamilies is setting consistent rules when the teen has to shuffle between multiple homes.
“Let’s say they stay with mom for two weeks and go to Dad’s for a weekend,” she explains. “Dad allows technology whenever they want, so for that weekend, that’s what those teenagers get. When they return to Mom’s, they will be like, ‘Well, I like Dad’s rules better.’”
Grace, who’s also a writer for FamilyLife Blended, a ministry that works with stepfamilies, said scenarios like these are common among the stepfamilies she speaks with. Ron Deal, director of FamilyLife Blended, added that because stepfamilies often involve three, four, or sometimes five parents (and an even larger set of grandparents), family life and parental discipline are “diluted.” Getting two parents to agree on discipline is hard enough, but adding more to the situation makes rule-setting more complicated, especially if the adults disagree.
“You have to be more intentional with your parenting because there’s four other opinions influencing your child,” Deal said. Articles and studies have linked social media use by adolescents to depression, negative self-image, and poor attention span.
But teens defend their use of technology. Last month, a separate survey by the Pew Research Center showed teens did not view social media negatively. They admit experiencing relationship drama, fears of being left out, and cyberbullying, but most teens said social media kept them connected to friends and provided them with a creative outlet. Only a small fraction believed their parents were worried about their online pursuits.
Despite what teens say, Erickson stands by the study’s recommendations, which include no smartphones until age 16 and no social media until age 13. Younger teens and children are more vulnerable to using smartphones in risky ways, she says.
As a mom of a 12-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son, she understands this personally. “My husband and I have both talked about this, and we feel like it’s very powerful. So I really do believe that starting at a later age is wise.”
That hasn’t stopped their kids from asking for their own phones, which she says many of their classmates own and use to stay in touch with parents. Erickson says they plan to wait until their kids are older, when they’re past what she calls “developmentally vulnerable stages.”
So far, she and her husband have held their ground.
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