Rethinking the role of digital media in family life

June 5, 2013
Photo: Center for Media & Human Development, Northwestern U

Photo: Center for Media & Human Development, Northwestern U

Today’s parents of young children are much more comfortable with communication technologies than were the generation of parents who preceded them, as a significant U.S. report released yesterday confirmed. These parents are using technologies like the TV, smartphones, computers, and tablets to manage family life and to keep children occupied. And as children grow older, parents and children are much less likely to spend time together in mediated activities. Joint media engagement drops off markedly for children who are six or older, according to this study. What will this mean for U.S. families? It might mean that parents will have to prepare children for a world that requires intentional effort as we seek to maintain the bonds that matter most to us, as this blog post will report.

Findings from the just-released report, titled, Parenting in the Age of Digital Technology, were announced as part of a conference with the same title held at the offices of the Pew Charitable Trusts and that I was able to attend. The conference brought together speakers who have conducted extensive research on the media in family life both for general audiences and for specific educational and media industry applications. This post will discuss both the report and the conference, focusing specifically on findings and implications for parents, caregivers, and those who provide support and programming for families of young children.

The Parenting report was based on a nationally representative survey of more than 2,3000 parents of children aged 0 – 8. Ellen Wartella, director of Northwestern’s Center on Media and Human Development and lead author of the report, said that the study “reveals a generational shift in parental attitudes about technology’s role in young children’s lives.”

Dr. Ellen Wartella, Professor and Director, Center for Media & Human Dev't, Northwestern U

Dr. Ellen Wartella, Professor and Director, Center for Media & Human Dev’t, Northwestern U

Digital media don’t even make the list of things that parents are “very concerned” about, said Vicki Rideout, coauthor of the report. Health and safety, fitness and nutrition, and social and emotional skills top that list.

The report confirms the rapid adoption of smartphones and tablet devices in the homes of those who have children aged 0-8, noting that 71% of these households have a smartphone, 42% have a tablet device, and 35% have both. The study confirms that most parents (70%) don’t think that these technologies have made parenting any easier. Many parents still would prefer to rely on other alternatives, such as books, toys, or other activities when they’re looking for educational opportunities, when they want to keep children occupied, and when they want to reward good (or punish bad) behavior.

The study also confirms the enduring economic gap related to ownership of tablet devices: 65% of households with incomes above $100,000 own a tablet, whereas only 19% of households with incomes below $25,000 do. The study finds that there are different types of family environments, and that these are also related to income:

• 39% of families are media-centric, consuming an average of 11 hours of screen time each day. These families are very or somewhat likely to use tv to keep children occupied (81% say this). About half of these families leave the tv on all or most of the time and about half (44%) have a tv in the child’s bedroom. Children in these families spend an average of 4.5 hours a day with screen media (remember, these are homes with children who are 0 – 8 years old). Lower income families tend to fall into this category.

• 45% of families are media-moderate. They spend just under 5 hours a day with screen media, and would prefer to spend their leisure time outside rather than in. Children in these families spend just under 3 hours a day with screen media.

• 16% of families are media-light. These parents spend less time with screen media, are less likely to use tv when getting children ready for bed, and children in these families spend about 1 ½ hours with screen media. This category is associated with parents who have higher levels of both income and education, although there are families from every income level in each of these categories.

Goodling Institute for Research in Family Literacy

Goodling Institute for Research in Family Literacy

These three categories echo Sonia Livingstone’s analysis of the “media-rich,” “traditional,” and “media-poor” homes she observed in her studies of media in the U.K. homes of families with children. Livingstone also found a relationship between media use and income.

In the U.S. context, there’s also a relationship between heavy media use and the increasing stress of managing a household where both parents work and where a diminished economic safety net means that work often intrudes upon family life, as Elinor Ochs, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at UCLA, reported. Ochs and her research team have just published the results of a large-scale ethnography of U.S. middle-class families that documents the hectic and often stressful lives of parents in two books: Fast Forward Family and Life at Home in the 21st Century. At the conference where the Parenting report was released, Ochs showed poignant photos of backyards that sat empty as families retreated to separate indoor (and often mediated) activities in the scarce hours at home. In their study, she and her colleagues found that fully half of parents’ leisure time was spent with the television; most families had 3 tvs; 80% had tv in parents’ bedroom; and 47% had a tv in the child’s bedroom.images-3

For those interested in media use, one of the key takeaways from the CELF study by Ochs and her colleagues is that children’s technology use is entwined in unclear family role expectations, routines, and rules. Tasks are negotiated rather than delegated, and the child’s individual entitlement trumps obligation in many households. Parents seemed uncomfortable interrupting media use or setting clear expectations about when such use could begin or needed to end. Ochs showed footage of fathers coming home from long workdays to children too engrossed in video games to acknowledge the father’s return, and mothers struggling to extract children from television-viewing in order to get them to school on time. Ochs, who is Director of the UCLA Center on the Everyday Lives of Families (CELF), argued that we have to see parental regulation of media use in the context of how families today are living their lives.

Such struggles over media use raised questions about the self-reports of parents who responded in the Parenting study that children’s media use was not a source of family conflict. Maybe the struggles that Ochs and her team observed are more unusual among families with children younger than age 8. Or perhaps families of young children do not envision such occurrences as “family conflict” but as personal struggles over how to be good parents for children immersed in a mediated environment.

This led to one of the key discussion points of the conference: The responsibilities of parents, and of experts who would advise parents, have shifted.

Instead of looking for guidelines about how much is too much screen time, we need to encourage parents to think about teaching time management and we need to provide young people with opportunities to learn how to remove themselves from or end screen time. Michael Rich, Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School and advice author at, suggested that families consider instituting a “digital Sabbath” in which they experience life together and apart from technologies. He also noted that this is often harder for parents than for their children. Barbara Fiese, Professor at the U of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, noted the importance of encouraging healthy habits in the whole “family ecology” of which media ecology is one part.

48698073.TexasDSCN0184Another key discussion point of the conference: We need to remember that we don’t all experience media in the same way.

This was one of the points I wanted to make, as I observed that not all families even want to adopt a “media-light” position. I noted that the “helicopter parent” or “concerted cultivation” approach to parenting tends to keep families too busy to watch television and is framed in relation to viewing all leisure as a waste of time. Media are only seen as positive in these families when they fit within what I term an ethic of expressive empowerment. However, not all parents can engage in the kind of concerted cultivation activities that tend to make media use lighter. They may face economic, health, language, or job- or transportation-related challenges. Or their neighborhood’s not safe and so staying inside with media is a positive alternative. Child with a iPad in iPad promotionWhat’s more, “helicopter parenting” and concerted cultivation are rooted in the idea that young people can achieve and improve their lives through participation in existing societal structures, whether that’s school, sports, or the arts. But while families facing greater economic challenges hope that these things will help, they don’t trust that they will. They look to their families, neighborhoods, friends and communities to help their children develop the resilience they will need to face the challenges of racism, prejudice, and structural inequalities. These families approach media with an ethic of respectful connectedness: to the extent that media can help parents and family members to stay connected and to remain respectful of who they are and where they’ve come from, media can be seen as useful and helpful in relation to family goals.

Vikki Katz, Assistant Professor at Rutgers University who has studied Latino immigrant parents and their children in LA, also reinforced this idea. She reminded us that many people don’t take work home with them via their smart phones, for instance – but on the flip side, in order to make ends meet, many also have to work longer hours and not at times of their own choosing. She also reminded us that it’s important not to pathologize families who have economic struggles. They have the same goals as the rest of us when it comes to wanting the best for their children and in their hopes for the “American dream,” and those of us working in areas of policy, research, and industry need to seek to provide support for them on their own terms.

Other speakers at the conference included:
Richard Culatta, Acting Director, Office of Educational Technology, US Department of Education; Kelly Pena, Senior Vice President for Research at Disney Channels Worldwide; Leticia Barr, Tech Savvy Parent blogger with Parents magazine; Linda Villarose, former health reporter and editor at The New York Times; Michael Levine, Executive Director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center (who gave a quick review of important research to come), and George Askew, MC, Chief Medical Officer, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Thanks especially to Ellen Wartella, Vicky Rideout, the Pew Charitable Trusts, Emily Kirkpatrick who is VP of the National Center for Family Literacy, and Sabrina Connell and the many other graduate students from Northwestern and from Georgetown University who made this conference possible!

Vicky Rideout, VJR Consulting

Vicky Rideout, VJR Consulting



Making an iPhone contract w/kids? Ask them what they want from you.

January 11, 2013

I just published a blog entry response to the “iPhone contract” that made the rounds earlier this week (referring to the mom who wrote a contract with her 13-year-old son that outlined expected behaviors). I decided to take my own advice and have my kids take the lead in writing up a family technology agreement. Some of it might make you laugh (or cringe in recognition):

Setting up a contract about tech use with your kids

January 8, 2013

The holidays are a time when lots of parents give gifts of technology to their children. And so, when a mom in Cape Cod created and then blogged about an 18-point contract for her son as she gave him an iPhone for Christmas, I guess I wasn’t too surprised to see that her contract went viral.

As a response I thought I’d post the contract that’s in the back of my book, The Parent App: Understanding Families in a Digital Age.

I got some of the ideas for my own contract from Common Sense Media, which provides great age-appropriate resources for parents who want help figuring out how to positively integrate technology into the lives of their family members. Like the contract that Janell Hoffman wrote, the contract in my book is meant to encourage conversation between parents and kids around technology. Mine includes not just mobiles but all kinds of family technologies and it also reflects a broad way of parenting in the digital age that emphasizes mutual respect.

I really liked that Hoffman’s contract included lots of fun. The one suggestion I’d add to that contract: I think it’s a good idea to create something that both the children and the parents can sign. From my research, I learned that young people learn a great deal from what they observe among their parents, and sometimes we have a hard time putting the tech down even when we really want to prioritize time with our precious family members (I speak from experience as an easily distracted multitasking mom of two teens!). So what’s below is not just a contract for a young person to sign – parent(s) need to sign it, too.

Here’s to navigating a media-saturated world together!

Time Together

1. I agree to spend ___ hours each week doing activities with only my family members.
2. I agree that when I am at the dinner table with my family (whether at home or elsewhere), I will put my hone and other devices away and I will not return to them until we have finished cleaning up after the meal.
3. I agree that the following locations will be no-technology zones:__________________

Mutual Support

1. I agree that I will tell someone in my family if I experience something online that makes me feel bad or if I find something that I feel is inappropriate.
2. I agree that no matter what I am doing, I will answer the phone when I see that a family member is calling.

Respecting the Rights of Others

1. I will download or use copyrighted materials only when they are legal to download or I have sought permission to use them.
2. When filling out surveys or questionnaires online or on a mobile, I will not give out specific information about where I live or where I go during the day.
3. I will give credit to others when I cite, quote, or copy their ideas or images from an online source.
4. I won’t copy, paste, and send a message to someone else if that message was meant only for me.
5. I won’t text and drive. Ever.


1. I agree that I will ask permission when I’d like to view what someone else has been doing online, with texts, or elsewhere. I agree that I will not hide what I am doing online and on my phone from other members of my family.
2. I agree that I will not share personal information that I wouldn’t be willing to see broadcast on our local television news.
3. I agree to limit play time on the computer to ____ hours each week.
4. I agree to limit game time on game devices, mobiles, or tablets to ___ each week.
5. I agree that I am responsible for remembering my own password, and I will not share it with anyone beyond my family.
6. I agree that I will practice respectful and responsible behavior, and I will not insult other people or send mean or inappropriate messages online, in a text, or in a comment.
7. I agree that I will not purchase anything online or enter a credit card for any reason without asking another family member first.


1. I agree that I will ask _______ (someone in my family) how to do _______ (e.g., how to play Minecraft, write a blog essay, set up a ring tone, etc.)
2. I agree that I will help _______ learn how to do __________.

Do you have some other items you’d like to add?

How are mobile & digital media shaping parent/teen relationships?

November 2, 2012

SNS and mobile phones can provide powerful ways for parents to stay connected to their teens. But what happens when things go wrong?

By Lynn Schofield Clark, Ph.D.

It’s become a familiar story: parents using Facebook as way to publicly discipline their children. Recently, we’ve seen the parents in Wisconsin who took away their daughter’s phone and then good-naturedly flooded her Facebook page with goofy photos.

But before this, there was the mom who replaced her 13-year-old daughter’s profile photo with a picture that featured the words, “I do not know how to keep my…. (red x over the daughter’s mouth). I am no longer allowed on FB or my phone. Please ask why. My mom says I have to answer everyone that asks.”

And another mom who posted on Facebook a photo of her 12-year-old daughter holding a sign that read, “Since I want to post photos of me holding liquor, I am obviously not ready for social media and will be taking a hiatus until I learn what I should and should not post. Bye Bye.”
Perhaps most famous in the “Facebook tough love” parenting genre is Tommy Jordan, the North Carolinian who fired nine shots into his 15-year-old daughter’s laptop in February 2012 in retaliation for the negative things she’d said about her parents on her Facebook page.

Such approaches are necessary, some have argued, in order to help young people to recognize the public and permanent nature of the negative messages they choose to post online. And clearly, teens and tweens are online and on the phone. There are now more than 800 million of us on Facebook, and fully 7.5 million joined under the age of 13. Moreover, 22% of all teens log onto social network sites more than 10 times each day. Half log on at least once each day. “We have to meet kids where they are,” as the mother of one of these punished daughters explained.

Meting out punishment online is just the latest form of openness and information sharing that’s become a standard way of life for many adults, as one recent study on privacy found. Apparently 40% of U.S. adults have little concerns about privacy for themselves or their children, according to that study.

Yet despite the new media twist, the parents in these examples are embracing a fairly traditional view of parental authority and punishment. Public humiliation has deep roots in several cultural traditions. During the Puritan era in the U.S., for instance, wrongdoers were subject to public floggings and time spent in wooden stocks. Children in the U.S. colonial era wore “dunce” caps to display their inability to perform adequately in schools. In Eastern societies, offenders had their heads shaved and were paraded around town on a donkey. These are forms of punishment meant to decrease undesirable behavior.

But is this form of discipline effective?

The psychologist B.F. Skinner argued more than forty years ago that such punishment can be effective in some situations, but cautioned that people need to weigh such punishments against possible negative consequences. For instance, the punished child might be more cautious in posting disrespectful messages online, but she might also learn that humiliating others is a good response when she is similarly disrespected by others online.

Facebook tough love certainly isn’t the only approach to disciplining online indiscretions. There’s also been a fair amount of media attention paid to well-meaning parents who try to prevent their children from engaging in negative online behaviors in the first place, usually by monitoring their online and texting activities. They also worry about the risks that the online and mobile environment might pose. Criticized as “helicopter parents,” these parents want to send their teens the message that they are looking out for their best interests. They are always in the background, ready to offer guidance for the young people who might need it (see “Big Brother? No, It’s Parents,”New York Times, June 25, 2012)

And like their parents, young people also aren’t always concerned about privacy. According to a Pew Internet and American Life study, 77% of parents have checked the sites that their children have visited, 66% of parents have checked to see what information on their children is publicly available online and nearly two-thirds of young people under the age of 17 are fine with having their parents as friends on social network sites.

So is this monitoring approach to discipline better?

Sometimes, teens in these families get the wrong message. They learn that their parents may be so willing to look out for and forgive them that they are rather easily manipulated. One teen in my interviews, for instance, described how she turned her mother’s concern for her into a source of guilt. She strategically used her mobile phone, texting her mother just before her curfew, but after she knew her mother would be asleep. As she explained, “That way, the next day when she asks why I didn’t get home by midnight, I can say, ‘well, I texted you at 11:45 to tell you that I’d be home late and when you didn’t reply I figured it was ok.’” Her mother, seeing the text the next morning, expressed appreciation for her daughter’s conscientious effort to let her know that she was all right. No harm done, the mother figured – except that her daughter’s disrespectful actions toward her parents’ stated rules went unacknowledged.

One thing that tough love and helicopter parenting have in common, then, is that both approaches are related to parental intention as well as to issues of parental authority. In the first examples, parents are attempting to assert their authority and demand respect, and they are using social network sites as a public platform through which to enact their desires. They see their children as strong enough to “take it” when they get the punishment that their parents believe they earned. In the second situation, parents see their children as capable of being strong and self-sufficient, but they also see them as vulnerable. Sometimes, parents in these families came from authoritarian families and do not want to repeat what they saw as their own parents’ overly punitive approaches. They might use the mobile or social network sites as a way of allowing their children to reach them at any time, which they see as a sign that they are giving their children the respect that they deserve. But both approaches can have consequences. While in the first instance, children might end up feeling disrespected by the parents’ responses, in the second, the parents might end up feeling disrespected as their children manipulate the situation to suit themselves.

What’s interesting about the new media context, however, is that it opens the possibility for greater mutuality in our relationships with one another, because it allows us to have more information about one another and to express more ongoing concern for one another than ever before. We can get glimpses into the inner worlds of those we care about and can, with motivation, come to gain an appreciation for that person’s frame of reference by spending more time listening and observing than speaking and telling. This is not an easy or automatic process, caution Linda Hartling and Jean Baker Miller, formerly of the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at Wellesley University. Yet as they write, “when both people feel seen, known, heard, and respected in a relationship, they begin to generate mutual empowerment.” Mutual empowerment is a two-way process of relating that allows each person to feel that he or she can influence the shape of the relationship. An approach of mutuality is therefore not about parental intention alone so much as it is an acknowledgement that parents and their children construct their relationship together, and that their actions within the online and mobile realm are expected to reflect that mutual respect and understanding.

Research into parent/teen relationships online gives support for this approach. In the study Young Canadians in a Wired World, researchers who interviewed both young people aged 11 – 17 and parents of 11-to-17-year-olds concluded, “The teenagers who did share details of their lives with their parents were the ones who were not routinely monitored. Trust in this case was mutual; the parents trusted their children to behave appropriately and the children responded by providing them access to their Facebook page. This suggests that there may be an inverse relationship between surveillance and trust, and that monitoring alone may work against family dialogue.”
In relationships of mutuality, Netiquette experts suggest that parents might want to ask their children before they presume to make things public. “Would you mind if I friended you on FB?” is a good question to ask before attempting to “friend,” just as it’s important to let young people decide when they might want to remove a photo from a parent’s page.

Sometimes, though, teens act like teens and make mistakes, even when they are in these relationships of mutuality. Those cases might warrant an approach of restitution. Restitution is different from both “tough love” and too-quick forgiveness. Unlike forgiveness alone, restitution requires that a person be held accountable; unlike compensatory punishment, restitution points toward restoring the relationship rather than merely paying for crimes committed. The goal in this approach is to help the young person to make amends, not to make them suffer because you suffered. Restitution doesn’t have to happen publicly, although it might.

Young people like to know that their parents are looking out for them, and this generation of young people is growing up with more support than perhaps any previous generation in history. Rather than viewing new media as primarily opening new possibilities for risky behavior, then, parents might want to consider how these technologies can offer us opportunities to build deeper, richer, and longer-lasting relationships of mutuality with those who are most important to us.

What mutuality might look like betwee mother and son

Communicating Across Generations

October 29, 2012

A few days ago I led a workshop on digital and mobile media use with a group of people who were grandparents and parents of older children.  One thing that generated a great deal of discussion involved texting. According to these older family members, the way young people communicate via text is shaping the ways that the older people in their lives are able – or, in less positive terms, forced – to communicate with them. And the older generation has mixed feelings about this.  I heard stories like those of the grandfather who said, “I try to call my grandson but his voice message system is full so I can’t even leave a message.” 


Older people see this lack of availability as an affront or a lack of civility.  They know that the younger generation is constantly connected and thus they sense that they are a lower priority than those who are in their grandchildren’s (or their children’s) immediate peer circles.  They assume that phone calls from peers are answered, and phone calls from older family members are ignored.  But that’s an assumption rooted in a different life experience.


Most people over the age of 35 grew up in a different era when it came to the phone. Throughout most of the twentieth century, when the phone rang, you answered it.  In the late 1970s, for instance, my generation debated whether or not having an answering machine was appropriate, and considered it impolite to “screen calls.” Screening calls, as I’ll explain for those younger than 20, meant standing still when the answering machine was recording the voice of the caller, listening to that voice before deciding whether or not to answer the call. Those older than 30 probably remember returning home to an answering machine full of admonitions to “Pick up! PICK UP THE PHONE.  I KNOW you’re home.”


Caller ID wasn’t widely used until the 1990s. Today you know who is calling because their name or number shows up on your phone, but it used to be common for people to answer the phone by saying their name: “Hi, this is Lynn Clark.” Today when my pre-1990s office phone with no caller ID rings, answering it feels a like playing Russian Roulette.  Will this be a 30-second interaction or a 10-minute one? 


Today, in both business and in our personal lives, we’ve come to expect that we’ll indicate our interest in engaging in a longer conversation with a person, and we will give them the courtesy to have some input on when that will happen.  In other words, we make appointments now, whether it’s to go on Skype or to have a longer conversation. 

Answering the phone is a commitment.  We only recognize that now because we have other alternatives.


Younger people see this need for appointment-making as a way of prioritizing time and relationships within what they experience as crowded and overly busy lives.  They have been texting for as long as they can remember, and so they recognize that they have choices: they can communicate with people on an ongoing basis through texting, keeping the communication going, and they can also communicate with more depth when needed or desired, through scheduled calls. 


To an older generation, it seems as if younger people have more agency in their relationships with the older people in their lives than my generation did, in that they can control whether a certain interaction will be shorter or longer by selecting the communication venue (or in effect, limiting the first contact to a short interaction which is usually a text).  We perhaps forget that when we were younger, we also scheduled a time to have longer conversations with our parents.  Usually, that schedule was set in advance: when we were in college, the military, or in young adulthood, we were to call on Saturday morning, or on Sunday afternoon.  We didn’t usually have shorter conversations with them because it was expensive to call. So whereas we see the short interactions via text as undesirable now, we might have liked it back then, had it been available to us.  


We need to recognize that when we call expecting an answer, it’s not that we are being ignored because they don’t want to talk with us.  It’s that we are breaking the rules of the game: short interactions come first.  Unless you are calling about something that’s going to be happening in the next hour or so, text first.  To them, that’s a sign of civility and respect. 


Social norms are still evolving in relation to these new media.  The challenge for all of us is to recognize that our expectations are just that: expectations.  If we can keep in mind why we are trying to connect with the people in our lives, we can learn the ways that this is understood by everyone involved.



Sherry Turkle on CBS, discussing our obsession with texting.

Economics & Family Media Use

October 1, 2012

The MacArthur Foundation’s Spotlight on Digital Media and Learning featured an article on my book, by Heather Chaplin.  The article compares my argument to that of Annette Lareau’s, in that like her, I find that there are certain parental ethics that have evolved within differing material situations, and those guide how families approach digital and mobile media.  Thanks, Heather!


Bringing Up the iKid Generation

September 21, 2012

Chicago Tribune ran this story by Heidi Stevens that’s helpful for parents who are trying to sort out how to use technologies for education and family bonding. Cites me & Michael Levine of the Joan Cooney Ganz Center, and gives a positive mention to!

August 21, 2012

The new online magazine Amplify has some thought-provoking and helpful material for educators and parents with articles by Marc Prensky, Scott Steinberg, and Marilyn Price-Mitchell, among others. I’ve got an article there (scroll down to see it) titled, “When Parents Aren’t Comfortable With Technology.”

Tracking kids

July 16, 2012

“You can track your kids, but should you?”, The New York Times asked, and several of us responded.

July 16, 2012

“Can Gadgets Bring You Closer to Your Children?,” The New York Times’ Somini Sengupta asks. She looks at a recent study by a security company that identifies the growing trend in parental monitoring of children (and of teens’ resistance to this trend), as well as Common Sense Media’s recent study that suggests that many teens dislike the distractions of constant connection and wish their parents would disconnect more often, too.