When it comes to screen time, parents are poor role models for kids

While many parents worry about how much time their children spend glued to computers, tablets and televisions, a new study reveals the adults themselves spend more than nine hours a day in front of screens. Hari Sreenivasan talks to Jim Steyer, CEO of Common Sense Media, about parental hypocrisy over media use, different cultural perspectives toward technology and ensuring screen-free time.

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    We've spent our share of time looking at how kids and teens spend their time with their screens. Now there's a new survey that finds their parents have some of the same habits.

    The study, which asked for feedback from 1,700 parents of children age 8 to 18, found adults spending more than nine hours a day themselves looking at video screens.

    Yet, even as they're worried about how much time their children spend watching screens, nearly 80 percent of parents felt they were good role models for their kids when it came to this.

    Jim Steyer is the founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, which conducted the survey.

    My jaw is still on the floor about the nine hours. That seems unbelievable. You have got to be counting stuff that I do at work and my laptop.

  • JAMES STEYER, CEO, Common Sense Media:

    It's astounding to me, too. I thought it was going to be about four hours. Right? I thought it would be four, four-and-a-half-hours.

    The truth is, though, it's only an hour-and-a-half of work time. So that means seven hours and 45 minutes per day, the average American parent is spending with screen media at home. It was shocking. And they think they're good role models.


    So, that's the other part, that while they try to tell their kids, get off your phone and pay attention and talk to each other, under the table, they're checking their e-mail.


    That's exactly right.

    And, actually, I do think that's what the bottom line about this whole survey is. First of all, nobody ever asked parents. As you mentioned in the opening, we have looked at how much time kids do, whether they're age 8 to 18 or zero to 8, but nobody ever asked parents.

    And I thought parents were much more controlled. But the truth is, everybody is addicted to their devices these days.


    And you actually started to break it down by income level and ethnicity.




    You started to see some patterns emerged.


    The most interesting pattern is that Latino families are more than twice as concerned about and engaged in their kids' media consumption as white or African-American or Asian American parents.

    So, there is a big cultural difference, and I think a very laudable one, in the Latino community. They're more concerned about cyber-bullying, about pornography, about issues. And then they set tougher limits. And I actually think it shows a cultural tendency toward family that's good, that we should all learn from.


    It also seems to be that the more they know about what their kids are doing, the less worried they are.


    I think that's true in general.

    Your kids are going to get older sooner than you think, Hari. And when you do know more, I think you relax and think, I can teach them judgment and values.

    But I think parents today are just blown away by the surfeit of digital media platforms that we all live with. They don't understand Snapchat or Instagram, but they're using them themselves more than they were once.

    I think the number, nine hours, is shocking. TV is still the number-one medium that parents like, but they are spending time on the same platforms that their kids are.


    And how do they feel about social media for their kids?


    Mixed. Very mixed. And I actually think that's really true about media and technology in general.

    On the one hand, parents think their kids have to learn technology for education, for jobs, for 21st century skills. Like, 94 percent of parents agree that technology is really good. On the other hand, they're worried about tech addiction, lack of sleep, cyber-bullying, pornography, all the downsides.

    So, it's a nuanced picture. And I think it reflects the way I feel as a parent of four kids, too. They have got to be there. And actually they have to understand social media. But I'm worried about what might happen to them.


    And in this day and age, you go to classrooms, so many of them are wired or wireless, and kids are connected to laptops. Sometimes, they're bringing that software home. It's necessary for homework.


    That's right.

    And we believe strongly in that at Common Sense. We now have 130,000 member schools. So, the vast majority of American schools are members of Common Sense Media and use a curriculum we developed with Harvard professors called Digital Literacy and Citizenship.

    So, technology — comma — used wisely — comma — is an extraordinary educational tool. But used inappropriately, it can cause all sorts of problems. And I actually think that's clearly now as true for parents as it is for our kids.


    Were there any clear rules of the road that these parents advocated for?


    Well, it's interesting.

    As you mentioned in the opening, nearly 80 percent of parents say that they're good role models. But you would think, therefore, that they're doing three or four hours a day. The truth is, the big thing that we have seen and we have promoted at Common Sense is what we call device-free dinner, meaning have family meals, not just dinner, but all family meals.

    Get rid of the phones, get rid of your laptops, get rid of all those devices, and just be there with your kids, and create sacred spaces, what our colleague at MIT Sherry Turkle refers to as sacred spaces, where there is just no device in between you and your children.

    So, parents say they do that, but the numbers sort of belie that.


    What about any kind of long-term effects? Relatively speaking, smartphones are still pretty new in the long arc of technology.



    You know, I think it has an enormous impact on everything from empathy — if you're constantly looking down at your phone, as opposed to talking to your kid, I think it has an effect on your relationship with that child.

    I think, with younger kids, there's brain development issues. At my age, I don't — whatever little brain I have is probably developed as much as it's going to be. But I think it has to do with long-term effects on family relationships, human interaction.

    And the positives are the educational opportunities, the chance to connect with people around the world. So, it's all about how you use it, and I actually think setting limits, too, and a healthy media diet.


    All right, Jim Steyer, Common Sense Media, thanks so much.


    Great to be here, Hari.

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