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Parents in Philadelphia express concerns regarding their children’s digital media consumption, yet acknowledge certain advantages as well

A cohort of U.S. senators has recently urged Meta, the tech conglomerate that owns Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger, to provide documentation pertaining to the mental and physical consequences its products may inflict on young individuals. This call comes in the wake of a lawsuit filed by 33 states in October 2023, asserting that Meta, with the aim of maximizing profits, deliberately designs addictive features within its social media platforms. The lawsuit contends that these features are crafted “to entice, engage, and ultimately ensnare youth and teens.”

While there is ongoing debate among researchers about whether social media and other digital platforms can genuinely be classified as addictive, a consensus exists regarding the problematic nature of excessive smartphone use. Many parents express a blend of concern and uncertainty regarding the most effective means of managing digital media consumption for children under the age of 13.

As a professor of library and information science at Drexel University’s College of Computing and Informatics, along with my colleague Yuanyuan Feng, we conducted comprehensive research interviews from 2019 to 2022 with 17 parents at three branches of the Free Library of Philadelphia. The objective was to explore how parents navigate media use within their families. All participating parents, representing diverse educational, socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds, were Philadelphia residents with at least one child aged 5 to 11.

Although our initial focus wasn’t on parental concerns about children’s media use, every parent expressed apprehensions, with only eight discussing any positive aspects of media consumption. Our findings advocate for promoting balance, rather than solely addressing addiction, as a more constructive goal in managing children’s digital media usage.

Primary Concerns of Parents:

  1. Inappropriate Content Exposure: The most prevalent concern, voiced by 80% of participants, was the exposure of children to inappropriate content.
  2. Excessive Screen Time: Nearly three-quarters of parents expressed discomfort with the amount of time their children spent on media.
  3. Impact on Healthy Activities: Seventy percent of parents worried that media use could displace healthier activities such as reading, outdoor play, in-person socializing, or community events.
  4. Safety and Privacy: Over half of the parents, including Evonne, expressed concern about their children’s safety and privacy in the digital realm.
  5. Social Skills: Approximately one-third of parents were troubled by the perception that media overuse could lead to poor social skills in children.

The concerns highlighted in our research underscore the multifaceted challenges parents face in navigating their children’s digital media engagement, emphasizing the need for nuanced approaches to achieve a balanced and healthy media environment.

Benefits for Children: While the parents in our study extensively shared their concerns, discussions about the benefits of media use were less frequent and detailed. Nevertheless, it is crucial to acknowledge that digital media present both risks and opportunities for children.

Parents recognized how digital media allowed their children to connect with family and friends living far away, such as through video chats with relatives in other countries. They also believed that digital media skills are essential for their children’s future job success. Additionally, they appreciated how digital media could support their children’s learning by fostering curiosity and providing access to new information.

Several parents enjoyed engaging in online games with their children and sending supportive messages through text throughout the day. They viewed these activities as examples of using digital media to foster healthy family relationships.

Furthermore, some parents discussed the joy and relaxation their children experienced through digital media use. Research indicates that gaming, in particular, can be a healthy form of digital play when done in moderation and with parental awareness of content warnings.

Guiding Children: Facilitating thoughtful discussions with children is crucial for them to benefit from digital media while minimizing potential risks. To support this approach, parents should view their role in guiding children’s media use as less about protecting them from harm and more about educating them for long-term healthy habits. Here are some recommendations to encourage this perspective:

  1. Rethink Time Limits: Rather than focusing solely on the amount of digital media use, consider the value of different types of activities. There is no universal “normal” time children should spend with media. Balancing entertainment with social and educational activities is key.
  2. Educate Kids: Rather than imposing strict restrictions, educate children about the benefits and risks of online content. This prepares them for a future where online engagement is inevitable.
  3. Encourage Social Skills Online: Acknowledge that much of young people’s social activity occurs online, emphasizing the importance of online participation in building and maintaining friendships. Cooperative games can help children learn problem-solving and teamwork.
  4. Model Good Media Habits: Parents should demonstrate moderation in media use, especially in interactive activities, to set an example for their children. If rules are established for family media use, parents should adhere to them, including during mealtimes.
  5. Avoid Fear Tactics: Positive discussions are more effective than scare tactics. Teach children to recognize potentially unsafe online situations instead of portraying the entire internet as a perilous place. Encourage the development of judgment skills.

In essence, a balanced parenting approach involves open and honest conversations with children about both the risks and benefits of digital media, guiding them to make informed decisions about media use.

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