October 16, 2017

Though originally considered to be a much more secondary contributor to social learning, digital media and the sudden mobility of mass media have made it important to examine the media’s role in children’s socialization and parent usage of technology during quality time with their kids. New ways for parents and children to use digital media arrive every year. Media and interactive technology have pervasive influence on development and learning, and may have the power to influence our values and conceptions of adulthood; namely, priorities, expectations around relationships with others and definitions of success. Therefore, it is imperative to think about the implications of media and interactive technology use during childhood in a way that will help increase clinical understanding of media effects throughout the lifespan. Narrow-mindedness has led many researchers and policymakers to overestimate the short-term negative impacts that interactive technology and digital media have on today's youth. However, there is evidence that indicates we may be underestimating the longer term positive effects of the technology.  There is a need to define what fluency is when speaking about digital media and interactive technologies. This means fostering a discussion on the three E's: expectations, level of exposure and amount of experience with digital media that is appropriate to give our children. 

In 2016, my research lab at Northwestern University (the Center on Media and Human Development) collaborated with Common Sense Media to create an extensive report called, “Common Sense Census: Plugged In Parents of Teens and Tweens.”  Within this report, we collected data from a large probability-based national sample of 1,800 parents of both teens (ages 13-18) and tweens (ages 8-12). The point of the report was to understand the “media diets” of modern parents and their attitudes, perceptions of and behaviors towards youth media usage. Four key findings of the survey were:

  1. Parents are using an increasing amount of screen media.
  2. Due to this, most parents believe that they are good media and technology role models for their children.
  3. Parents are concerned about their children’s social media usage.
  4. Parents believe that monitoring their children's media usage is more important than respecting their privacy. 

The most important information this report added to the literature that exists on digital media’s influence on family dynamics, is that parents care just as much about being “plugged in” to their media devices as their children. The report also was critical in examining parental screen time as a function of parenting practices. Still, we were unable to uncover how differences within these practices help to increase or decrease the media literacy of these youth. One important question remains: If monitoring media usage means simply restricting technology, how can we be surprised when children are unable to use it effectively to communicate and make sense of their world?

We’ve conducted many studies and published several academic papers in our lab that have made me certain that parental usage habits with screen media is highly correlated to the screen media habits of their children. Furthermore, we are now aware that children spend more time with electronic media than they do in any other activity, aside from sleep. Although most of the empirical research has stated that the negative effects that stem from media exposure may be reduced by parental monitoring of children's media use, there is a lack of clear understanding of the mechanisms and extent of these protective effects.

While I believe that prospective effects of parental monitoring of children’s media on physical, social and academic outcomes should continue to be examined, I think that we need to change the focus of our research to also look at the prospective effects of increased parental collaboration and joint media engagement with their children to develop best practices for media usage in the home environment. Although parents we survey and interview always seem adamant about monitoring their children's screen time, can they adequately do so when they are spending so much time alone consuming content on their own devices? That said, should parents need to be so wary about letting their children have unlimited access to interactive technology?

The "I have mine, you have yours" attitude that I’ve observed many parents (myself included) display in their rationale behind their rules around media devices in their households leads me to think we must actively encourage parents to not only engage in the same mediums as their children, but also find ground for joint experiences with their children. Through sharing experiences with youth and learning alongside of them, digital media can provide an avenue for youth to connect positively with their parents, peers and communities, and to promote constructive meaning-making in their lives. These insights also have important implications for reframing digital media usage within social services, and improving policy and practice to make these more youth-oriented. Through enacting these youth-oriented changes, programs can better support and inspire youth’s passions for the pursuit of meaning.

I recently attended the National Association of Media Literacy Education’s (NAMLE) pre-conference in Chicago at the Erikson Institute. During the all-day discussions, media producers, educators, practitioners, scholars and administrators all gathered to explore the current concerns of teaching media literacy in early childhood. During media literacy expert and NAMLE’s founding President Dr. Faith Rogow’s midday talk, she emphasized that media literacy is true power and agency in today’s world. We must build a foundation of media literacy education to prepare youth for the media environment they are facing  every day, but often we misconstrue literacy as avoidance of technology altogether. What I took away from Rogow's presentation was that we as researchers need to not just look at literacy as avoiding negative media effects but examine media literacy as a life skill that is acquired over time. This means we have to stop viewing media literacy from a deficit perspective and more so as a resource pedagogy.

Ultimately, critical media literacies help nurture creative thinking, enhance students’ personal media practices and engender sustained change in local communities. In today’s media-saturated world, students are highly active in digital and media spaces, and it is the responsibility of parents to leverage their capacities to teach life skills. These interactions are the type that will equip students with not only academic proficiencies but also the confidence to recast existing media narratives and critique oppressive philosophies. It is through this framework that parents can best answer the question of how to ethically parent children to both use consume and produce new media.

Taking the emphasis off technology itself and becoming more worried about the cultural shifts that happen within these mediums is imperative. When most experts first conceptualized best practices for parenting in the digital age, social media such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Tumblr did not exist. Our research indicates that social media is now an intrinsic part of the everyday lives of today’s youth. Moreover, portals to digital spaces are always emerging, changing, and closing. As new tools and spaces are developed and gain traction, the size, scope and practices of affinity spaces will change. Just as literacy researchers call for continued theorizing of adolescent literacies in the digital age, it is imperative for parents to be willing to enter these affinity spaces and understand how they shape their children's literacy practices and meaning-making processes.

The approach we should take as parents is to understand that all of us have changed the way we live because of the way we use these devices, but we also must be aware that they are just tools. They are neutral. What we do with them, and what we demonstrate for our children, and what we let our children do with them is what determines the outcome. Just as we need to learn to drive a car safely, we need to learn how to drive the internet safely. Again, this is another tool that increases our freedom, increases our ability to do things, but also has great potential danger. But we don’t get in cars thinking, “oh, I could get addicted."

We must turn our youth into social architects, and the best way to do so is to continue to encourage parents and children to explore both their critical mindsets and participatory practices together. This means rethinking technology in terms of the future of work, respecting/encouraging multiple points of entry and encouraging parents to model the media usage behaviors that they would like to see in their children. However, parenting techniques must be informed by growing research from media scholars and pediatricians on the long-term consequences of repeated exposure to electronic media and emotional development. Only then can we truly bridge the digital divide that occurs at the second level — where household technology is available, plentiful and heavily used, but rarely a shared experience.

Jabari Evans
 is a Ph.D. student in the Media, Technology, and Society program at Northwestern University's Department of Communication Studies. Jabari is also a research team member at Northwestern's Center on Media and Human Development. Jabari‘s research interests revolve around the cultural production of hip-hop, African American youth as a media market, and exploring the role media plays in the socialization, self-efficacy and self-image of youth in urban environments. Jabari has founded his nonprofit organization, The Brainiac Project Inc., to leverage a commercial recording studio as a safe haven and means for violence prevention in Chicago’s South Side communities.