Editor’s Note: Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter @kellywallacetv.
Parents spend nine hours per day on average with screens, according to survey
Despite their screen use, 78% think they are good media role models for their kids
If you think your tween or teen spends too many hours online, you might need to look in the mirror before you dish out screen time criticisms. According to a new survey, parents spend as much time plugged in each day as their teens and three hours more per day than their tweens.
The survey, sponsored by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization that helps parents, educators and children negotiate media and technology, found that parents of tweens and teens spend more than nine hours a day on average on screens. More than 80% of that time was for pleasure, not work, with parents watching television, playing video games, social networking, browsing websites, or doing other things on a computer, smartphone or tablet.
Last year, in a survey of 8- to 18-year-olds, Common Sense Media found that teens spend the same amount of time – about nine hours each day on average – on devices or other screens. Tweens, identified as children 8 to 12, spend about six hours on average consuming media, the report found.
“I think it tells you that (parents) are not that different than their kids,” said Michael Robb, director of research for Common Sense Media.
And yet, 78% of parents felt that they were good role models for their children when it comes to media and technology, according to the national survey of nearly 1,800 parents of children ages 8 to 18. This is the first survey by Common Sense Media to focus on parents’ screen use and attitudes.
“So there’s a tension there,” said Robb, noting how parents who think they are good role models worry about their children’s screen use, but still spend plenty of time on screens themselves.
“It’s going to be, I think, a challenge, and has been a challenge, for parents to find what the right balance is for them and for their children,” he added.
Micky Marie Morrison, a mom of two boys, ages 10 and 14, in Islamorada, Florida, said she thinks about her kids when she herself struggles with how addictive social media can be.
“I see it in myself. I have to open and close Facebook two or three times a day and not leave it open because it’s just such a waste of time,” said Morrison, the founder of BabyWeight TV, who says she spends about five hours a day on screens, with 70% of the time devoted to work.
“It can be hours a day just gone … and I can see that happening to my kids as well, so I want to model when I’m with them that I’m not ignoring them to look at Facebook on my phone. I’m actually with them.”
Media multitasking? No problem, parents say
When it comes to media multitasking – using more than one screen at a time, such as watching TV while writing a proposal for work on your laptop – about two-thirds of parents said it had no impact on the quality of their work.
In last year’s survey of tweens and teens, among the kids who said they multitask, about the same number – nearly two-thirds – said that texting or watching TV while doing homework didn’t affect the quality of their work.
“If you’re a parent and you’re in front of your TV and you’re trying to talk to your kid but you’re also having to text on your phone and then you get frustrated when you’re trying to get your kids’ attention but they’re texting, it’s hard. It basically makes your job a lot harder,” said Common Sense Media’s Robb.
Morrison, the mom of two who’s also author of “Baby Weight: The Complete Guide to Prenatal and Postpartum Fitness,” said no one walks around her family home with their phone. All phones are stored in a cubby in the kitchen, in part, to protect against trying to media multitask.
Her 14-year-old son is also only allowed one hour of smartphone time after school because he was just “obsessing over it” and constantly looking at Instagram and texting with his friends.
“It’s so distracting,” she said. “He couldn’t even get homework done or anything.”
‘We’re in this brand new no-man’s land’
In a somewhat surprising finding, the biggest fear parents have of social media is not that it distracts children from homework or could increase chances of bullying but that it negatively impacts physical activity – too much time on Snapchat or Instagram means less time for exercise.
After concerns about exercise, 35% of parents worry that social media negatively impacts their children’s focus and 34% are concerned it hurts face-to-face communications.
Her children, ages 5, 10 and 13, are not on social media yet, but when they are, she says she and her husband want to make sure they are interacting with their friends in-person and “having their social life be in real life and not just online.”
Fifty-six percent of the parents surveyed are concerned their children may become addicted to the Internet, 34% worry that screen use negatively impacts sleep and 38% are concerned about the over-sharing of personal details.
Morrison, the mother of two, said she worries about the “permanence” of what her children share online. “Even if it’s in Snapchat or something that supposedly goes away, it still can be (screenshot) and saved and shared around … (and) can be used for bullying or future embarrassment,” she said.
Hispanic parents expressed more concern about social media and their children’s Internet use than white or African-American parents. Parents of tweens also were more concerned than parents of teens.
“The younger you go, the more concerns you have,” said Robb of Common Sense Media.
‘Want privacy? … Get a mortgage’
Parents were fairly united over whether to keep tabs on their children’s online activities. Two-thirds said monitoring their children’s media use is more important than respecting their privacy.
“I definitely agree with it because the Internet is like letting your children loose in the world,” said Janeane Davis, founder of the blog Janeane’s World and mother of four in suburban Philadelphia. She has a 20-year-old daughter, a 13-year-old son and 9-year-old twin girls.
“I would not let my 9-year-olds just go outside and wander wherever they wanted to wander. I watch where they go when they go outside,” said the writer and entrepreneur. “Monitoring and minding their business is much more important than having a sense of privacy. You are at my house. You want privacy, you should get a mortgage.”
Making sure children only see age-appropriate content is another big challenge, parents say.
That is something Cherylyn Harley LeBon, a writer, executive coach, strategist and mom of two, learned firsthand when her 12-year-old daughter was recently working on a journalism assignment.
She had to research the big bad wolf of “The Little Red Riding Hood” story, but when she typed “big bad wolf” in her search engine, she didn’t get what she was expecting. Instead, there were pictures of women scantily clad in “Little Red Riding Hood” outfits.
“It’s really important as we live in this technological age and as your children get older, they’re really going to have to use their computers for everything in school starting maybe even younger than middle school so it behooves you as parents to have a conversation with them about this stuff because innocently she was doing research for a project and came upon porn.”
Davis, the mom of four, said parents need to realize that technology isn’t going anywhere.
“Even for parents who hate technology, it’s there. It’s at the supermarket. It’s at McDonalds,” said Davis. “So you have to teach your children how to use it. You can’t make them afraid of it or make it some deep, mysterious thing.”
While parents want to monitor what their kids are doing online and prepare them for what they might see, they overwhelmingly view technology as beneficial when it comes to their children’s academic achievements.
Ninety-four percent said technology supports their children’s education and school work.
Join the conversation
“I remember how inconvenient school assignments and research could be when we didn’t have the Internet at home,” said McFadden, the mom of three in Maryland, who remembers going to the library in high school and college and having to use microfiche for research.
“I know that technology can be scary and it can impact us negatively, but I also see the convenience … The way that my children are learning, they have less bureaucracy thanks to technology,” she said.
But there is one downside to that convenience, especially at a time when fake news is becoming more of an issue, said Morrison of Florida.
“My son actually said last week, ‘Gosh, I can’t imagine that you had to go to the library to write research papers. That really sucked,’ ” she said. “I said, ‘Actually no, you know why?’ And he immediately got it, and said, ‘Well, at least you knew every source in there is a credible one.’ “
How much time do you spend on screens each day? Share your thoughts with Kelly Wallace on Twitter @kellywallacetv.