Happiness, so the saying goes, is a state of mind. For children growing up in today’s digital world, however, the reality of finding true happiness can be a bit of a struggle. With increasing time spent on mobiles, tablets and gaming consoles, kids are becoming increasingly isolated from their friends and other family members. Professor Geoff Beattie looks at the impact the use of personal technology is having on our family time and potentially on our children’s social development.
The way we learn to interact and communicate with others depends critically on how we are raised by our parents and families at home. A happy, healthy upbringing begins with consistently high levels of social interaction and positive communication, with shared family time being critical to all children’s development.
I’ve been working with Electric Jukebox looking at family time in the UK and the US to see how much time parents and their children are spending together and what they are doing with their time. We spoke to over 2,000 US and 2,000 UK parents with children under the age of 14 to take a look into the home lives of families and how technology was impacting on their time together.
Most parents (67% in the UK and 82% in the US) we spoke to wanted to spend more family time together. In the UK, parents don’t spend enough quality time together as a family, over 40% of parents we spoke to spent less than 30 minutes a day doing things with their kids.Three quarters of US parents said that they wished their kids spent less time on personal electronic devices – and looking at this new research it’s easy to see why.
The amount of time under 14 year olds are spending on mobiles, tablets, computers and games consoles at home is simply staggering. Brits spend an average 3 hours 18 minutes per day or 23 hours per week on these devices at home, over double the time they spend talking to the rest of the family (1 hour 43 minutes per day). In the US, kids spend nearly 40 hours per week, 5 hours 38 minutes per day, on their devices at home, 2.5 times the amount of time they spend communicating with other family members.
When we look at the results in terms of regional variation, kids in London are more likely to be isolated in terms of social interaction from their families than children elsewhere in the UK. They spend 4 hours and 42 minutes a day on their mobiles, tablets and games consoles in the home, compared say to those in Wales and the South East who spend an average of 2 hours 36 minutes per day on their personal devices. The situation in the U.S. is even more extreme, with kids spending around 7 hours a day isolated on these devices in San Antonio, New York and LA compared to the least effected region of Memphis where kids still spend an average 3 hours 24 mins on their devices at home.
There’s a clear need to reflect on these findings, and to get these kids off these personal devices and get them interacting and communicating with the rest of the family in the home environment. A study into the effect of screen time on children by the Office of National Statistics in 2015 found that kids who spend over 3 hours viewing social media content on personal devices like phones and tablets during weekdays are twice as likely to suffer from mental health and developmental issues than those who spend less than 3 hours on it.
78% of UK parents and 92% of US parents have tried to persuade their kids to spend less time on their personal devices. However, at the same time, parents are often guilty of using these devices to keep their kids occupied; 55% of U.S. parents admitted to giving their children a mobile, tablet or games console so that they could catch up on their own devices and media whilst their kids were occupied. Families are living together but leading separate, parallel lives in the same house. This is a big problem for the healthy social development of children. The home should be a nurturing environment for families, a place where parents bond with their children, and provide a stable environment for learning through sharing experiences. Screen time in the home greatly impacts on this.
Whilst it is true, of course, that children can learn from some internet-based activities, the majority of time tends to be spent on social media, YouTube videos and gaming. Excessive use of social media and personal devices in the home can be detrimental to children’s social development. It doesn’t do parents any favours either. Their use of devises has the same isolating effect, depriving them and other family members, of direct social interaction and communication.
Earlier this month in an interview with The Observer, Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield launched the UK Government’s Digital Five a Day initiative and likened social media to junk food. None of us as parents would want our children to eat junk food all the time – double cheeseburger, chips, every day, every meal. For those same reasons we shouldn’t want our children to do the same with their online time. When phones, social media and games make us feel worried, stressed and out of control, it means we haven’t got the balance right. With your diet, you know that, because you don’t feel that good. It’s the same with social media.
At the same time nearly all parents, 89% of UK families and 97% of US families, agree that shared music experiences are a great way to bring families together – however, just 44% of US households are listening to music together as a family. The need for shared music experiences in the home has never been greater. Bringing families together through music, playing it out loud rather than on isolating devices and headphones, could help in building and maintaining close social bonds, and assist children to develop key social skills like confidence, communication and shared action. Music is effective at lifting the mood, and can act as a bridge between the generations.Geoff Beattie’s top tips for avoiding tablet trauma:
- 1. Ban all mobile devices from sit-down family meals together. Families need this catch up time. It helps us feel appreciated and understood.
- 2. Plan more family days out to experience new things together as a family and to build shared, collaborative memories.
- 3. Utilize the home to bring the family together and create memories, this can be very effective for time poor families. Play a game, or listen to music together, like that provided by ROXI. In fact, the psychological evidence is clear – music is one of the most effective techniques for lifting psychological mood state. We will remember these shared good times, singing, dancing, laughing, talking, even arguing together about our choice of music!
Professor Beattie is Professor of Psychology at Edge Hill University and in recent years a Masters supervisor at the University of Cambridge, and was previously Professor of Psychology at the University of Manchester from 1994 to 2012. He is a fellow of both the Royal Society of Medicine and the British Psychological Society. Geoff was Big Brother resident psychologist 2000 – 2010, he is also a broadcaster and the author of 22 books on psychology and applied psychology in everyday life.