As electronic screens have become increasingly prevalent in households, parents have scrambled to impose limits on the amount of time their children spend viewing them.
What parents haven’t always done is apply those limits to themselves.
In a survey released Tuesday by the Common Sense Media group and Northwestern University’s Center on Media and Human Development, parents reported spending more than nine hours a day in front of a screen of some kind, with most of it — 7 hours and 43 minutes — unrelated to their job.
The study, which included nearly 1,800 parents of children ages 8 to 18, represented something of a novelty in the area of technology research: an in-depth look at how often parents, and not their children, rely upon media.
What, exactly, has parents staring at screens with such regularity?
San Francisco-based psychologist Jim Taylor says the same aspects of the online world that draw children also draw their parents.
“Adults,” he says, “are as vulnerable as children to FOMO,” or the fear of missing out.
Still, the survey results raised eyebrows. A 2015 study conducted by Common Sense, a nonprofit that studies kids and technology, found that teenagers spent almost nine hours of “entertainment media use,” including television, meaning it’s possible that parents’ daily screen-time now exceeds that of their children.
“Let’s just think about logistics of the day,” says Taylor, author of “Raising Generation Tech: Prepare Your Child for a Media-Fueled World.” “In 24 hours, let’s say [parents] sleep eight hours, and work eight hours, and that leaves eight hours . . . to shop for meals, be with their kids.
“It almost seems like it’s not possible — and yet, it is.”
As Taylor and others were quick to point out, excessive use of technology can lead to an array of potential problems, both for children and their parents. The list of pitfalls can range from issues of materialism to an inability to focus.
And then there are more immediate dangers.
In 2014, Craig Palsson, then a graduate student at Yale University, published a report linking an increase in unintended children’s injuries between 2005 and 2012 to parents who were increasingly distracted by — among other things — their smartphones.
Despite their own daily usage, however, parents in the Tuesday study largely reported fostering positive feelings about their children’s use of technology.
The vast majority said, for instance, that technology positively supports education and schoolwork, that it prepares children for 21st-century jobs and that it helps build new skills.
Perhaps most notably, 78 percent of parents said they believe they are good “media-use role models” for their children.
The “thing that really surprised me is the disconnect between how much time parents are spending with media, and then they think they’re being good role models for their kids,” says James P. Steyer, founder and chief executive of Common Sense and the father of four children. “I would say 9 hours, 22 minutes — that’s not being a good role model.”
For the most part, Theresa Freeman has relied upon common sense to determine how often she and her two children, ages 9 and 7, are allowed to surf freely. As of yet, she and her husband haven’t instituted any hard and fast rules about media use.
“Whether we need to or not is probably a matter of opinion,” she jokes. But there are times, she adds, when everyone in the family is required to go device-free.
“You just have to put it down once in a while and focus on the kids,” says Freeman, of Mansfield. “I’m like any multitasking mom. I’ve got to do the laundry and get that birthday present, and my son will be like, ‘I just want to play light sabers.’
“But you’ve got to turn it off and [completely] focus on your family.”
It’s a task, though, that can be much easier in theory.
“It’s a struggle, it really is,” says Janelle Hussey of Rockland, a part-time teacher with a 1-year-old son, of attempting to determine how much time on a device is too much. “I think that anybody that says they don’t have those sort of feelings is lying.”
During long stretches at home, says Hussey, Facebook can seem like the one way to stay connected with the outside world.
“You finally get your kid down for a nap, and you’re like, ‘Oh, I finally have a minute to catch my breath,’ ” she says. “You think, ‘I’m going to check my Facebook for a minute,’ and 30 minutes later, you’re still there.”
The Tuesday study revealed a number of other findings. African-American parents reported more screen-time (10 hours, 37 minutes per day) than Hispanic parents (8 hours, 52 minutes per day) and white parents (6 hours, 38 minutes per day).
Income and education also affected usage, according to the study. The higher the income or education level, the less time parents reported using devices.
Dugan Arnett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @duganarnett.