When we speak about the burdens that people bear, we tend to reference what they “carry on their backs” or what’s been placed “on their shoulders.” When it comes to the hardships of today’s children and adolescents, we should think instead about what we’re placing in their hands.
Last month, the Institute for Family Studies released a report on the relationship between family structure and teen tech use (specifically gaming, social media, video chat, online shopping and texting).
Given the ubiquity of devices and the social pressure exerted on kids to get them early and stay on them often, researchers wanted to understand how parents and families are navigating this gauntlet, serving as perhaps the last defense against addiction.
The short story is that teens raised in intact families (defined by their two married biological parents) use digital media an average of two hours less per day than their peers who are being raised in nonintact homes.
The authors conclude that this margin, which does have an effect on sleep, mental health and self-image, likely has to do with the fact that intact families tend to set and enforce more family rules, including around the use of smartphones or tech devices.
In the words of one sociologist whom I recently interviewed, “Marriage and family matter now more than they did 30 or 40 years ago when it comes to a number of outcomes for kids.” It turns out that technology use is now one of them.
What is shocking, however, is that children in intact families still spend an average of eight to nine hours a day on digital or social media, which the scholars note is a “staggering amount of time, considering the time children spend sleeping, eating, going to school, watching TV (which was not included as digital media) and participating in extracurricular activities.”
There are any number of topics to consider in light of this statistic: how we as a society understand the value of the time we’re given, whether or not we appreciate that we are social animals in need of embodied relationships, that there are important things that we are missing out on like play and recreation and that we need mental and emotional space that’s free of comparison, affirmation and self-reference.
As a mother of two young children, I am cognizant of how my children are affected when I pull out my phone in their presence. I’m also aware of the fact that they are growing up at a time in which most public spaces are adorned with televisions and smart devices.
As a mother who considers herself devoted to trying to help her kids cultivate their imaginations, be comfortable with silence and socialize with others in person, the battle with screens feels Sisyphean.
These are things that my parents worked at, but they counted on redundancies to support their efforts: neighbors, parishioners, coaches, scout leaders and teachers were all in on the plan.
The institute’s report confirms what many of us know: that parents are now the primary but also, in most cases, the only figures that can shape their kids’ relationship with screens.
The good news is that where families create tech-free spaces and periods of time, particularly around meals and bedtime, kids seem to be able to learn habits of detachment. And when groups of parents join together in solidarity to delay giving their kids smartphones, their tweens and teens are more amenable because they aren’t the only ones without them.
Those of us who came of age before the tech revolution understand the burdens that we’re all now shouldering because we remember life without them.
While our children might have to hold these devices in their hands, perhaps we can preserve their innocence a little longer and give them a taste of how things were — and can be — with some technological temperance.
Elise Italiano Ureneck is a communications consultant and a columnist for Catholic News Service.