Parents Are Digital Hypocrites

Adults think they're setting limits but inadvertently teach kids to overuse gadgets

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I knew I was in trouble when the wallpaper on my iPhone got changed to a giant lotus blossom and my 4-year-old daughter was the culprit. I was the antiscreen mom who plucked gadgets out of my children’s hands. Nary a Wii or a Game Boy or even a Leapster entered our home, no TV during the school week, that kind of thing. My 8-year-old son’s friends preferred to have playdates at their own homes because ours was so electronically barren.

And yet, my kids were already adroit with touchscreens and browsers and downloads. This was not, as it turns out, because they are members of the first generation to grow up with gadgets since infancy, able to turn the page on an iPad at the age of 2. Yes, today’s children are “digital natives,” fluent in the language of tech at the earliest age possible. But they have to learn that language from somewhere. As it turns out, my children were learning that language from me.

(MORE: Do Children Really Have ‘Summer Learning Loss’?)

For as much as I forbade them from using electronics, I was awash in them. Two phones (one work, one personal), two laptops (one work, one personal), an iPad and an iPod. With six digital delivery systems for one person, it was inevitable that my kids would start to mimic my own habits, regardless of what kind of limits I thought I was setting. I was the one who ordered a Magic Tree House book on Kindle for iPad, not them. I was the one letting my son practice his math facts on my computer. As recent research shows, nothing determines a child’s media use more than the media use of his or her parents. “We’ve had this notion that children are driving media use with parents struggling to put the brakes on it, but with young children, that’s been a false assumption,” says Vicky Rideout, a researcher who conducted a national survey for the Center on Media and Human Development at Northwestern University.

Rideout surveyed 2,300 parents of children from birth to age 8 and found that about 40% established a “media-centric” environment, logging an astonishing 11 hours a day of total screen time (TV, DVDs, computer, games, tablets, smartphones). A slightly larger group, 45%, were “media-moderate” parents, with just under five hours of screen time. “Media-light” parents were the rarest, with only 16% falling into that category. “It’s the parents who determine the environment and set an example,” says Rideout. “The parents are the primary drivers of children’s media use.”

Double standards are common, says clinical psychologist and school consultant Catherine Steiner-Adair, who interviewed 1,000 children and 500 parents in focus groups for her excellent new book, The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age. “What I hear from kids as soon as they are old enough to know the word is hypocrite,” says Steiner-Adair. “Kids say, ‘My parents are hypocrites. They say no phones at the dinner table, and then they take a call.’ There is always going to be a power differential between adults and children, but the problem is that ‘do as I say, not as I do’ makes kids feel like parents are abusing their power, which undermines your own authority, and it also teaches kids that as they get older, they don’t have to play by the rules.”

(MORE: Your First-Grader Is Going to Be a High School Dropout)

TheBigDisconnect

Steiner-Adair acknowledges that the demands of work make it hard for parents to limit their own electronic use. When I was a kid, my parents kept our TV in the hall closet, to be brought out for one hour on weekends. As much as I may want to at times, I can’t stash my work iPhone behind the winter coats. But there are other ways that parents enable — and then justify — media use: passing back their phones in the car to show kids the blue dot on Google Maps, handing down their old electronics after they get an upgrade because, well, what else are you going to do with a outdated laptop? In reality, giving a child hand-me-downs also supports a parent’s own media use. “To have your child not be asking for your phone because they have an old phone of yours avoids conflict,” notes Rideout, whose survey found that only 55% of parents of kids under 8 are concerned with their children’s media use. “Parents feel that they’re making the proper judgment for kids, that they’ve found content that they think is appropriate and educational, so they’re not really worried. But you have to remember that you’re setting patterns that can last for the rest of their lifetime.”

As to whether media use is harmful to children or not, the jury is still out. “The research trails the speed of adaptation,” notes Steiner-Adair. “Kids are doing things before we can track them. What we do know is that the younger you give a child a phone in the grocery line, the earlier you’re teaching them to use stimulation instead of self-soothing to ease boredom.” (And by the way, when infants and toddlers want your phone, they’re often seeking a connection to you by following your focus of attention. Steiner-Adair cites work by Yale psychiatrist Bruce Wexler, who has found that when infants are given the choice of playing with an object handled by an adult or with an identical copy of an object that is closer, they will reach past the copy to play with the one the adult has.)

At this point, the debate about wired children is a religious one — people have strongly held beliefs about something that can’t yet be proven conclusively one way or another, and as with debates about politics or faith, they rarely result in anyone changing his or her mind. My personal belief is that the biggest argument against too much tech too soon is the opportunity cost: What else could my kid be doing when not looking at a screen? Reading, playing outside, exercising, socializing, daydreaming. But if I ever want to teach my children my own values about technology, I would do better by asking that same question of myself.

11 comments
dat.Lucario
dat.Lucario

I grew up homeschooled, and, as a result, I ended up meeting a lot of kids with parents like the author of this piece.

Any discussion of pop culture would be met with arrogant smirks, and they'd always find a way to force their feelings of false superiority into conversations. "Heard of it? No, not me. I don't even OWN a TV." I can still hear that rising inflection, see the arrogantly raised brow, and..... I could never forget the stench of lima beans and patchouli.

'Playdates'  seemed like awkwardly oversupervised prison sentences. The kids were often socially maladjusted, as the parents couldn't possibly allow their precious little angels to leave their bubble long enough to interact with 'normals.'


We'd sit in a living room, 'play outside like good ol' American kids should,' or I'd watch one of their freaky little kids indulge in an activity considered 'wholesome' by the parents, struggling to think of the most polite excuse to refuse. One of the kids played with batons. I'm not even kidding you.


Batons.


I'd sit and pretend I was somewhere else while the parents made unsubtle comments about my upbringing, how I should really consider moving away from electronics. I was accused of belonging to political identities I didn't recognize.


I'm pretty sure we were only invited over so the parents could add my father to their "minorities I've interacted with" pog collection.



Non of these modern-day Luddites grew up with the ability to interact normally. None of them learned how to turn on a computer, type a word document, or troubleshoot electronics -- things kids should be learning early now.

But, of course, those homeschooled kids were too special to need to know that stuff, right? It isn't possible that a child risen with so much suffocating care could end up ... *gasp*.... working for a living!

OzarkGranny
OzarkGranny

The research trails the speed of adaptation,”  Our children are part of a huge experiment.  I suspect they will be fine, despite the many hours a day of screen time, but if I'm wrong, they will suffer.  

KãviŠàm
KãviŠàm

"..the problem is that ‘do as I say, not as I do’ makes kids feel like parents are abusing their power, which undermines your own authority, and it also teaches kids that as they get older, they don’t have to play by the rules.”

this has got a point in my experience!

mgmerrill.arb
mgmerrill.arb

So you have six digital delivery systems. 

How'd that "tv in the closet" denial of electronic media effort by your parents work out then?

Umm, see how likely your "no leapster, no wii, no gameboy" is to backfire?

The forbidden fruit always tastes best.  Maybe you should try moderation in all things.

FluentInTech
FluentInTech

Just because your kids are not arbitrarily sheltering antisocial technophobes does not make them fluent in the language of tech.  Fluent in tech is reserved for the people lucky enough to be encouraged to explore and understand their world from that age.  Fluent in tech is reserved for those people who grew up in an unbiased and open environment.  Fluent in tech is reserved for those millionaires that donate billions to charity.  Fluent in tech is reserved for those people that can actually change the world. 

You should be so lucky that your kids become fluent in tech.

Gusb
Gusb

Interesting article, but what she describes isn't hypocrisy. As a parent there are many things that we do, say or feel that we don't want our children to. I smoke, but would hate for my son to. This doesn't make me a hypocrite.  Does the author have more gadgets than necessary? Perhaps. Is she telling her children that said gadgets are an evil all encompassing waste of time, then uses them anyway? It doesn't appear so. A parent has every right to set boundaries, and limits for their children, (within reason) without having to explain themselves. I love my child, but I'm a parent, not a buddy, or pal. Sometimes you need to say, 'Because I said so" to the the question "why/why not"

MelissaGillespie
MelissaGillespie

Here's an idea... stop trying to unplug kids completely. In the modern world, media is here to stay. Its a matter of managing the time, not trying to keep them away from it. No tv except on weekends is extremely unreasonable. As is trying to keep kids off the computer when most of the modern first world is run on computer and they NEED to know it to function. 


Just to give an idea... one of our employees is functionally computer illiterate. She said she knew them and didn't. She's an older lady and one of the sweetest people you will ever meet. But not knowing how to use the computer is a very serious problem in my industry where most of the business runs this way. I had to teach her to double click, right click, and copy and paste, and that's just to start. Then she was getting frustrated at not being able to pick it up and us expecting her to get it. I don't have time to teach someone how to power cycle a modem. Or how to search google maps. These are not difficult things, yet it took her months to catch on. 


It is NOT viable in the modern world to be computer illiterate just because parents have decided they want their kids to unplug. Parents will need to just deal with it. 

nicole.monday
nicole.monday

Thanks for a really interesting article! I guess the same principle applies to reading books - there's no point saying "read books, it's important" when the parents (or some teachers for that matter) are never seen holding a book in their own hands! I work in education and see a lot of hypocrisy there too! 

I'm also really uneasy about too much screen time - it's so habit forming and takes away opportunities to invent games/ creative things to do! I guess I'm a bit paranoid with my daughter - we don't even have a TV.

postingonline42
postingonline42

In my anecdotal sample size of one baby , this is true: "And by the way, when infants and toddlers want your phone, they’re often seeking a connection to you by following your focus of attention".

When my baby reaches for my phone, i turn it off and play with my baby. She forgets about the phone right away.  Everyone says she is a very happy baby. Of course things might change for the worse when she grows more.

My stepson though grew up in front of a TV and thinks TV is love, and wants to die if he doesn't have any (TV). 

mrsporkchopdarcy
mrsporkchopdarcy

@dat.Lucario I am sorry you had that kind of experience with homeschooling.  We are homeschoolers by choice (we had our children in public schools for a few years), and my children are very technologically advanced!  Homeschooling has nothing to do with it, parenting does.  Yes, tech is here to stay.  But, my children still learn the Greek and Roman classics, speak Latin, and are very social (contrary to what most people think homeschoolers are like in general).  We are not arrogant and do not look down upon other families that choose not to or are unable to homeschool.  Please stop perpetuating these ugly stories.  We heard about them before we started homeschooling, and continue to hear them.  We have never met these kind of homeschoolers, and the families we do socialize with are beautiful, intelligent, and also embrace technology; but moderately.