Chris Schulz Published

Parents Face A Digital Balancing Act

A family sits together while using different digital devices. In the foreground, a young boy looks at a smartphone while sitting on the floor in front of the couch where his parents sit. In the midground can be seen a man wearing blue jeans sitting on the left side of a couch using a laptop. To his right, a woman lays down on the couch and leans her head on the man's side while interacting with a small tablet. In the background can be seen shelving made of light wood with books and decorations. The image is bordered by a blue gradient with pastel colored circles above and below. In the top left of the frame are the words "Now What? A Series On Parenting" and in the bottom right is the WVPB logo.
Parents and families must navigate the growing role digital devices and social media play in modern life.
Photo courtesy of leszekglasner/AdobeStock

Digital devices and social media command more and more of our attention these days. Balancing this and creating healthy boundaries for increasingly younger children is becoming a bigger part of being a parent.

The COVID-19 pandemic changed the role of devices in childrens’ lives. According to a 2022 survey of parents conducted by the Pew Research Center, device use increased for all children between 2020 and 2021. One of the largest increases was in children that were under five in March 2020. Their use of tablets jumped from 51 percent in 2020 to 69 percent in 2021, an 18 percent increase.

Melissa Sherfinski, associate professor of early childhood and elementary education at West Virginia University, said the American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend any screen time for children under two.

“After that point between ages two to five, about one hour of high quality, screen time, like educational shows,” Sherfinski said. “Then once kids are older, then there is more flexibility. But they also recommend for families to really think through a good plan for making some rules and even rituals related to screen time and the home.”

There are exceptions, such as to build relationships and keep contact with distant relatives.

“Unless it’s maybe through a FaceTime or Zoom, you know, talking to if grandma and grandpa are far away, or aunties and uncles are far away, and they’re getting that actual face to face and language content,” Sherfinski said.

According to Sherfinski, concerns around childrens’ screen time has existed about as long as screens of any kind. She said earlier studies on time in front of the television showed that TV was on six hours a day in many homes, one study showing that 39 percent of families with infants and young children had a television on constantly. She also pointed to a more recent study from Singapore that showed that passive screen time early in childrens’ lives correlates to attention issues in elementary school. 

The concern around screen time is not limited to childrens’ direct usage either. In a survey of families around screen time conducted by Pew and released in March, nearly half of teens say their parents are at least sometimes distracted by their phone when the teens are trying to talk to them. The younger the child, the greater the impact of that distraction.

“What happens then with the dynamic is, that takes away from the parent’s ability to engage with the child, to sing to the child, to talk with a child et cetera, all those things that are so important for children’s language development, children’s cognitive development,” Sherfinski said. “That’s some of what some of those earlier studies found: that too much screen time, or even just background screen time with those really young children under two, can be problematic for their development.” 

For young children, the consensus seems to be clear: less screen time is better in favor of face-to-face human interaction. Things start to get a little murkier when it comes to screen time for parents and older kids, however.

Elizabeth Cohen, associate professor of communication studies at WVU, pointed out that internet-enabled devices, as well as social media, are simply a continuation of long-established social exchange.

“The way that I look at social media is, it’s really an extension of other types of social elements in our life,” she said. “A lot of people like to think of social media as, ‘Oh, well, social media came in and changed the way that we do things.’ And I tend to see social media as more of an extension of things we were already doing. These are tools that we designed as humans to connect with other humans.”

Cohen said there’s no denying that people, in particular adolescents, experience anxiety and even feelings of not being in control around social media. Much of that seems to arise from what Cohen calls social comparison behaviors. That can be adults comparing their parenting styles to others, or teens and children comparing themselves to their peers.

“This is not limited to social media, but I do think you have 24/7 access to people to compare yourself to now,” Cohen said. “Social comparison is just that natural human tendency of us to figure out how we are doing by comparing ourselves to other people in society. There’s upward social comparisons, which is kind of aspirational. But there’s also a downward social comparison, that, ‘I’m glad I’m not that one,’ or, ‘I seem to be much better off than this person over here.’”

But she is less convinced about the direct impact of social media on these issues. Psychological studies of the impact of social media are very much still in their infancy and are confounded by many of life’s variables that make it difficult to pin specific issues directly to social media use.

“It’s really impossible to understand all the different factors going on,” Cohen said. “A lot of studies will use interesting control variables and stuff, but the reason I said I’m continuing to be very skeptical, because there’s so much stuff going on at the same time that people are immersing themselves in social media.”

The good news for many is that screen time and interaction with social media is something that – barring work and school requirements – is largely up to each individual’s control. But Cohen points out that a lot of the difficulty for parents can stem from setting limitations on something they struggle to regulate for themselves.

“It’s how you use them. It’s not like there’s inherent evil in the technology,” Cohen said. “We design the technologies, and we decide how to use them. These are things that parents really have to wrestle with, because they’re in the driver’s seat. You have to make decisions about screen time and stuff like that, but that’s hard when adults also have a hard time setting limits.”

She said a big part of the uncertainty surrounding social media in particular is because it is so new to have the internet, and therefore so much information, available with such immediacy.

“I think we’re at a point of figuring things out,” Cohen said. “I think some of this might even come down to etiquette one day, where there’s just going to be certain norms that we start to develop about what’s appropriate, and what we consider healthy.” 

Sherfinski echoes Cohen that if used correctly, social media and devices can be used to enrich children of all ages and strengthen familial bonds. She recalls the story of a friend who lived away from her granddaughter, but was able to research bees and pollination with her over the internet.

“I’m thinking of, you know, all of the grandparents who have so many, you know, wonderful things to share,” Sherfinski said. “If we threw away social media and access to screen time and all of that, that wouldn’t necessarily be a perfect thing either.”

A lot remains to be learned about the role of digital devices and social media in child development but for now limited, intentional use seems to be the best approach for all family members. 

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