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:
- Inappropriate Content Exposure: The most prevalent concern, voiced by 80% of participants, was the exposure of children to inappropriate content.
- Excessive Screen Time: Nearly three-quarters of parents expressed discomfort with the amount of time their children spent on media.
- 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.
- Safety and Privacy: Over half of the parents, including Evonne, expressed concern about their children’s safety and privacy in the digital realm.
- 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.