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.

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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.”

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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.