Although researchers have yet to reach a consensus on whether ‘Internet addiction’ is real, parents are increasingly—and justifiably—concerned about their children’s technology and media usage, according to a new report released today by Common Sense Media.
The tonic, the report suggests, is a “balanced” technology diet for children that includes tech-free times and zones. Common Sense also recommended that parents and caregivers put down their own phones while driving, at the dinner table, and during family time.
“However the research community eventually comes to a consensus on whether and how to diagnose Internet addiction, it is clear that there has been a massive change in how we access and engage with technology,” according to the report, titled “Technology Addiction: Concern, Controversy, and Finding Balance.”
The report consists of a literature review of more than 180 journal articles, press accounts, interviews, books, and industry papers on the topic, as well as a new, nationally representative phone survey of 620 mobile-phone-using parents and 620 of their mobile-phone-using children between the ages of 12-18.
Among the findings:
- 59 percent of parents feel their teens are addicted to their mobile devices, but just 27 percent of teens agree. Researchers disagree on whether “Internet addiction” is a clinical condition, and it is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition—the American Psychiatric Association’s official classification and diagnostic tool. Regardless, Common Sense argues, research clearly shows that “problematic media use” that includes “dysfunctional ways of engaging with media” that are “characterized as compulsive, obsessive, or unhealthy” is a real concern. More research is needed on such behaviors among children and teens, the report argues.
- 78 percent of teens check their devices at least hourly, compared to 69 percent of their parents. Teens were also far more likely than their parents to report feeling compelled to respond to text messages, social-media notifications, and the like. The prevalence of “media multitasking” is of particular concern, Common Sense suggested. One study included in the report’s literature review found that students from middle school through university studied for fewer than six minutes at a stretch before switching to another tech distraction. Another found that “heavy media multitaskers have a harder time filtering out irrelevant information.”
- Device usage is a source of regular family conflict. Roughly one-third of both parents and teens said they argued about device use daily, and more than three-fourths of parents reported feeling that their teens are distracted by devices and don’t pay attention to family members at least a few times per week. And teens aren’t the only ones to blame; one study cited in the literature review found that “caregivers eating with young children in fast food restaurants who were highly absorbed in their devices tended to be more harsh when dealing with their children’s misbehavior.”
Given previous research from Common Sense that American tweens (ages 8-12) and teens (13-18) spend between six and nine hours per day outside of school and homework using media (including TV, video games, social media, the Internet, and digital music), such concerns are probably no surprise.
The new report also points out, however, that researchers have not established any formal link between social media usage and decreasing empathy among teens. And research on the impact of extensive Internet and mobile device usage on tweens’ and teens’ social, emotional, and cognitive development is surprisingly limited, Common Sense maintains.
Common Sense also notes that teens still report preferring face-to-face conversation to other forms of communication. Researchers such as Danah Boyd of Data Society have suggested that in a society in which opportunities for such interactions are increasingly limited, teens are turning to technology to express typical developmental needs around social connections with peers.
For parents and caregivers, just limiting access to technology and digital media is unlikely to be the solution, Common Sense suggests.
Some research has found that “children of technology limiters…are most likely to engage in problematic behaviors such as posting hostile comments or impersonating others online, whereas children of media mentors are much less likely to engage in problematic online behaviors,” according to the report.
Most important— and challenging, for the 27 percent of parents in the Common Sense survey who reported feeling addicted to their own mobile devices— is serving as a good “media mentor,” the group concludes.
“Parent role-modeling shows kids the behavior and values you want in your home,” the report says. “Kids will be more open and willing participants when the house rules apply to you, too.”