Helping families to manage their technology use
Mandy Kienhuis, Michelle Macvean and Jan Matthews – Parenting Research Centre, Australia, October 2021
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has seen an increase in technology use across the world. The 2019 Parenting Today in Victoria survey, conducted prior to the pandemic, suggests that many parents felt they used their own devices too much. The study also found that parent device use was associated with parenting confidence, parenting behaviours, and parent-child interactions – all of which are known to be associated with child mental health and can be improved through parenting support.
In this time of great uncertainty and physical disconnect, parents may be wondering how to manage their family’s use of technology and achieve better balance for improved wellbeing. Parents play a powerful role in raising children and modelling positive behaviours, so assisting parents to feel better about device use in the home may lead to improvements in parent and child wellbeing. Given the ever-present nature of technology in our daily lives, including in healthcare delivery, professionals have a role to play in supporting parents to achieve this balance.
Family use of technology
The majority of Australians own a mobile, laptop or tablet (Deloitte Access Economics, 2019; Oviedo-Trespalacios et al., 2019). While most experts acknowledge the benefits of technology, concerns have been raised in the past about the impact of device use on wellbeing (e.g., Fuller et al., 2017; Mesman et al., 2013). Child development experts have previously questioned the impact of screen time on children’s mental health and wellbeing, leading to recommendations and calls for parents to be supported in managing their family’s device use (e.g., American Psychological Association, 2019; Australian Government Department of Health, 2012).
Technology use has been on the rise throughout the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2020). During this time, technology has provided a lifeline for many families, enabling continued social interaction, education, employment, and access to services, entertainment and information (Vargo et al., 2020). As families navigate the ups and downs of parenting during a pandemic, there is a clear need to build a current, nuanced and functional understanding of technology use in the context of parent-child interaction.
The Parenting Today in Victoria study, conducted by the Parenting Research Centre, has provided insights into the experiences and support needs of Victorian parents. Data was collected from representative samples of Australian parents in 2016 and 2019. At each time, 2,600 parents (including over 1,000 fathers) of children aged 0-18 years were surveyed, highlighting the strengths, needs and experiences of parents in Australia.
In the 2019 survey, before the COVID-19 pandemic, parents were asked about their device use. The survey also collected information from parents about their parenting confidence, experience and approaches. The researchers were interested in how these aspects of parenting were associated with parent device use.
How did parents feel about their own device use?
Overall, 80% of parents agreed it was easy to put their device away and focus on their child. While these findings are positive overall, some parents may need support to manage their screen time.
Just over half (55%) of the parents surveyed agreed they used their mobile phone or device too much. Many responses suggested parents may be concerned about the impact of their own device use on their children. Nearly 40% of parents said they didn’t feel comfortable with their use of technology when spending time with their children; and less than 10% reported feeling annoyed when their children interrupted them while they were using a device.
Parents of younger children were more likely to feel like they spent too much time using a device, felt less comfortable about how they used technology when spending time with their children, and were more likely to find interruptions annoying. These parents tended to be younger themselves; so differences observed across child age groups may be less to do with the child’s age, and more to do with younger parents reporting more concerns.
Parent device use and parenting
The Parenting Today in Victoria survey looked at how parents’ views about device use were associated with their experience of parenting more broadly. In general, parents who seemed to be having a tougher time with parenting also had concerns about their own device use. For example:
- Parents who thought their role was demanding also thought it was hard to get off their devices.
- Parents who felt annoyed with their children for interrupting them on the phone were more likely to find parenting frustrating, to find that tiredness got in the way of parenting, and to have poor mental health.
- Parents who reported yelling at or arguing with children were more likely to find it hard to put their device away, and were more likely to feel uncomfortable with how they use technology around their children.
The survey also found a strong link between sense of parenting self-efficacy, or confidence, and nearly all aspects of parent reports about their device use. Parents with lower self-efficacy found it harder to put devices away, felt uncomfortable with how they use devices around children, and were more likely to be annoyed when children interrupted their screen time.
On the other hand, those parents who were satisfied with their parenting and felt supported by others seemed to be managing their device use. Parents were more likely to find it easy to put their device away if they found parenting an enjoyable experience; were satisfied with the time they had available for their child; and felt they had someone to turn to for advice. Parents surveyed who found it easier to put their device away also said they were more likely to discuss problems with their children. This suggests they were more able to engage in positive or constructive parent-child interaction.
Evidence shows that sensitive and responsive parent-child interactions are important for children’s social, emotional and language development (Tamis-LeMonda et al., 2014), and that reduced responsiveness is related to poor mental health and behavioural problems in adolescents (Pinquart, 2017). Other studies have shown parental responsiveness to children reduced when parents used technology while children were around (Beamish et al., 2019). Frequent parental use of technology is also associated with poor child and adolescent mental health (McDaniel & Radesky, 2017; Stockdale et al., 2018). If parents’ technology use is substantially impacting the frequency or quality of parent-child interactions, there may be implications for child mental health.
However, overall, many participants in the current survey appeared to be managing their families’ device use. These parents also seemed to be having a more positive experience of parenting. It may be that parents who are finding it challenging to manage their own and their children’s screen time are finding other aspects of parenting challenging too. These parents may need more support.
The 2019 Parenting Today in Victoria data doesn’t indicate the direction of the association between parenting experiences and parents’ device use. For example, these findings could be interpreted to mean that low self-efficacy in parents hinders their attempts to manage device use; or, that parents’ challenges with device use contribute to their reduced feelings of parenting self-efficacy. Regardless of the direction of effect, it is likely that helping parents to find ways to manage their family’s screen time will help parents feel more confident about their parenting, and will result in improved child mental health.
What can professionals do?
The 2019 Parenting Today in Victoria survey found parents often turn to accessible and familiar avenues for parenting information and support, such as GPs (56.7%), other health professionals (55.6%) and educators (72.3%). Therefore, professionals can play a vital role in supporting parents.
Professionals can support child wellbeing and development by supporting parents in the following ways:
- Respond to parents’ concerns about their family’s tech habits
Levels of concern about family screen time could be higher at the moment for some families. They may be juggling competing needs to remain virtually connected to family and friends, to work from home, and to engage in remote learning. Let parents know that it’s OK to be concerned about their children’s or their own technology use. If parents are concerned that device use is interfering with family time, their own wellbeing, or their children’s wellbeing and development, you can assist them to access support. You might find this Screen time: Checklist for healthy use helpful. You could use this to support your own conversations with parents, or you could simply share the link with them.
- Let parents know that it’s OK to use technology
Some parents might have concerns about their parenting behaviours and things that are discussed in the media around screen time. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, messages about the need to reduce screen time are likely to be unrealistic and may induce greater stress and guilt. Rather, your role might be to help parents see that it’s OK not to reduce device use at the moment if they don’t want to or don’t feel able to. Reassuring, rather than criticising parents for greater than usual reliance on devices, is likely to be more beneficial to families.
- Talk to parents about the potential benefits of device use
It might be helpful to provide information about the benefits of safe and appropriate device use and positive ways to use technology. More than ever before, people are using devices for leisure as well as work and study. Technology can be used for creative tasks (e.g. drawing or creating a video), educational purposes (e.g. playing Scrabble, learning a language), social connectedness (e.g. connecting with family in other countries or with friends with similar interests), and to support physical activity (e.g. using a map app when going for a bike-ride, playing a game requiring movement).
- Talk to parents about healthy technology use
If parents have some concerns about their children’s use of technology, talk about how healthy screen use is about more than the amount of time on devices. It’s also about how and when devices are being used, and using technology in positive ways. Device use should be balanced with non-screen time, such as in-person socialising and spending time in nature, to the extent these things are possible. Parents should be prompted to consider when and where screen time is appropriate. For example, using devices just before bedtime may interfere with sleep, and device use during family mealtimes may reduce opportunities for positive family interactions.
- Support concerned parents to find ways to manage their own device use
Children learn from the people around them – if they see adults using their devices during dinner or late into the evening, they will likely learn that it is OK for them to do this too. You can provide tips for modelling healthy device use. For example, switching off phones during family mealtimes sends the message, ‘We enjoy spending time with family.’ Invite parents to think about how they use their devices and what they use them for. Ask them to think about quality sources of engagement, and stick to those things that are helpful and that make them feel well in the long term.
- Let parents know that other sources of information and support are available
The Raising Children website provides credible information on all aspects of parenting, including healthy screen use, role-modelling positive device use, and tips for managing family screen time. You can find information yourself or refer parents to raisingchildren.net.au to do their own research. If a parent is struggling to manage their own or their children’s device use, professional support is available. It may be that parents who are finding it challenging to manage device use are finding other aspects of parenting challenging too. These parents may need additional parenting support. The family’s GP will be a good starting point, as they can refer to a psychologist or counsellor if needed.
- Moderate your advice, given the current context
Any support and advice offered needs to take into consideration the ubiquitous nature of devices in families’ lives, now and into the future. It is unlikely to be helpful to dismiss concerns and suggest solutions that remove devices from the central position they hold in many people’s lives, particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, when people are being encouraged to connect, learn and work via technology. UNICEF’s article on Rethinking screen-time in the time of COVID-19 (Kardefelt, Winther, & Burne, 2020) may provide you with additional guidance suited to the current circumstances.
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