Do screens unite or separate us? A Spanish study on the impact of the media on family life

Do screens unite or separate us? A Spanish study on the impact of the media on family life

Families have become more and more often multi-screen environments, where at least one TV, smartphones, tablets, computers and video game consoles “thrive” together. This fact is transforming important aspects of family life: the screens contribute significantly to facilitating the management of everyday life, but at the same time they have become a source of conflict and concern for parents.

These and other interesting aspects were analyzed in a recent Spanish research conducted in June 2018 on a sample of 1,400 families with children under the age of 18. The survey was commissioned by Empantallados.com, a platform for parents created to promote educational accompaniment in the digital world.

Through an anonymous survey carried out by GAD3, a Spanish pollster, a photograph was taken of families with small children and their relationship with “screens”. The data of the study is also enriched with the opinion of an expert who helps to contextualize the figures and with some advice from parents to parents, to help them better understand this new family situation. The data, comments, interviews and advice are put at the service of a reasonable and reasoned educational purpose.

Nowadays, it is immediate to think of a family scene in which each member is busy with a different screen: while perhaps someone is shopping online, the child has a remote conversation with his grandmother showing his good grade in school. New technologies reduce distances. But what is happening with the closest ones? Do screens help family management and relationships with partners or children? The Spanish research starts with these questions to arrive to a diagnosis of the current situation and offer a deeper reflection on the subject.

Relationship with technology, parental mediation

The relationship of families with technology and screens sometimes seems paradoxical. Screens facilitate home management and communication, but they also have introduced elements of conflict at home and unprecedented educational challenges for parents.

In the majority of cases, that is 66%, the respondents found the positive potential of using screens to manage everyday family life, which does not mean they are not aware of the new forms of conflict arisen from the very same devices. Two areas are of special concern: prolonged exposure to screens and inadequate content and images to which their children may be exposed. The research highlights: Parents have a new role: mediation between their children and technology. This accompaniment must be based on trust . Being close to them in their connections to the Internet, seeing certain alarm signals or talking often about what they visit on the web, are some suggestions to turn parents’ fears into action engines.

And so, when the use of screens is excessive, various steps of “detoxification” could be helpful: leaving the devices away from the dining room and encouraging dialogue at the table; leaving them outside the bedroom; avoiding to fall asleep late and with the mobile phone in your hands; in the car avoiding the Wi-Fi, to take advantage of the trip as a moment of confrontation and discussion; or leaving the mobile phone “parked” outside the room when studying in order to avoid distractions…

Once we have set the timetables, how do we protect children within the digital environment?

Parents are aware that they have assumed an essential role in the protection of their children, and this also extends to the Internet. Effective parental mediation helps to educate responsible and correct digital users.

The approach to the task of parental mediation is essentially based on three axes of action: control actions , such as the installation of parental control in the devices; accompanying actions, that is, being close when they surf, knowing what they consume on the Internet and generating conversations about it; and, finally, family engagement actions, that is, creating a digital family culture, with clear limits and rules of use, that allow to be reviewed when something doesn’t work.

But what is the right age for the first ‘screen’? First the tablet, or the mobile phone?

The interviewed families think that the average age for a tablet is 10 years; later, at 13, the first smartphone. But the majority received it between 11 and 12 years old. That is, before the age that the same respondents consider appropriate. For most parents there are no magic recipes, since many factors motivate receiving the first screen, perhaps the most important one is the character and situation of each child.

Apart from the “suitable age issue”, the main concerns of the parents interviewed are: cyberbullying, the relationships with strangers, access to inappropriate content, and waste of time and overexposure of their image. One of the solutions proposed by the expert is complying with certain rules, almost creating a sort of negotiation with the children on the use of technological devices. Reaching an agreement can serve to reduce situations of conflict and, in any case, it helps to encourage dialogue and sharing. And, as the study points out, there should be a constant and periodic proposal of so called ‘alternatives’, i.e. a trip to the park, an excursion in contact with nature, in other words, all those occasions that allow us not to completely lose contact with the surrounding reality.

Parents and new technologies, models to imitate or examples to avoid?

Parents, being the model to be imitated by their children, should be the first ones to practice self-control of the screens at home.

The correct use of technology has become a ‘personal battle’ for parents, both with reference to digital education and with reference to the proper use of various devices, especially of the mobile phone. Even for adults, parents in fact, the use of screens is not only relegated to leisure time, but has become an essential tool for work and family management which is difficult to avoid, or to limit the use.

Although more than half of respondents consider making proper use of the screens, and therefore present themselves as a good reference for children, 3 out of 10 parents admit to make a heavy use of them, even more intense than that of the children themselves. Only 8% of parents surveyed said they hardly ever use screens at home. The conclusion is that, through their behavior, parents offer numerous opportunities to present balanced models of relationships with technology. If we ask our children to respect certain rules, maybe we should start with us as parents...

And so among the suggestions proposed, there is good array of sound pieces of advice: “do not turn back home with your ear stuck to your phone without even greeting those who are at home”; try also to “create a separation between work time and family time” - sometimes, a simple gesture, like not leaving your mobile phone in sight, can contribute to your disconnection; “set up exclusive moments of attention for your family”: for example, when you pick your child up at do it without looking at the phone while waiting him, or enter the house without appliances; “be the first one to free your meal table from mobile phones and other devices”; “try to ‘forget your phone’ during family events and excursions”, etc.

A new educational challenge: how to manage new technologies

To the question “how prepared do parents feel to face the challenge of managing new technologies?” 60% responded that they would like to know more about their children’s digital education. But there is also a 9% who recognize that they are overwhelmed by the problem and say they have thrown in the towel.

The conclusion of the study is that digital education should be a means to personal development and not a reason to discuss and fight at home. For this reason, it is necessary to start very early, with clear guidelines established with common sense and aimed at the growth of children. In this way technology can be truly experienced as an educational and growth opportunity for the whole family.