Two recent studies were published by University of Michigan researchers about the role of technology in children’s social and cognitive development and family communication. Results from “Small talk: Electronic media keeping kids from communicating with parents” and “Technology at the Table: Attitudes about Mobile Phone Use at Mealtimes” provide a greater understanding of the context that influences how families and children discuss and interact with technology.

Public perception of technology is context-dependent

Rackham student Carol Moser was the lead author of the “Technology at the Table” study, in which Moser and her colleagues surveyed 1,163 people between the ages of eight to 88 regarding their beliefs about appropriate phone usage in various scenarios.

Researchers from both studies agreed that families’ perceptions of media in children’s lives is becoming more positive, as many see the benefits of watching educational television shows, doing a quick Google search at dinner to add something to the conversation and having the ability to communicate over long distances through social media.

Sarita Schoenebeck, an assistant professor in the School of Information and one of the co-authors of the study, said the press tends to cover negative aspects of technology use and media, which influences people to think negatively about the topics.

“When video games came out, people worried about it,” Schoenebeck said. “When television came out people worried about it.”

Schoenebeck said public perception of mobile phone usage is context-dependent.

“With mobile phones, one finding is that people don’t think it is all bad,” Schoenebeck said. “We want to be more nuanced when we think about what is OK and what is not OK.”

The results showed that the intent, duration and communication of phone usage had a large impact on whether the behavior would be considered appropriate. For instance, the majority of those surveyed thought it was appropriate to use a cell phone to send a quick text or respond to a work e-mail but inappropriate to use a phone for social media while eating dinner with family.  

“We suspect it has a lot to do with the perceived importance of the phone use and the amount of time,” Moser said. “Using social media can take a bit more time than a quick text message or phone call. Some phone behaviors may be perceived as more important, more urgent.”

Moser said the traditional concept of family dinner is changing due to the busy schedules of parents and children from work and school, yet it continues to be fundamental in maintaining a positive family dynamic.

“I think that how we share meals together as families is always evolving and adapting to our lifestyles,” Moser said. “Perhaps today things look a little different, but I don’t know if we can say that is different in a good way or a bad way.”

It is when the technology usage gets in the way of face-to-face conversation or leads to unhealthy behaviors that the media starts to have harmful consequences. According to a study in 2015, these consequences not only include weakened communication within the family, but they also increase aggression due to violent media and obesity rates. Twice as many children and three times as many adolescents were obese in 2012 than in 1982.

Family discussion about media can mitigate long-term effects in young children

While the “Technology at the Table” study focused on people’s beliefs and thoughts concerning the media, “Small talk: Electronic media keeping kids from communicating with parents,” concentrated on the effects of media, based on the fact that media habits, especially television habits, begin to form in children even before they attend kindergarten.

Television has a significant role in children’s everyday lives. The University Health System notes that two to five-year-olds spend an average of 32 hours a week in front of the television. In addition, approximately two-thirds of households have the television on during meals.

The researchers of the “Small talk” study used an advanced audio recording device to obtain information about the electronic media usage of 44 familes from 2010 to 2011. The types of electronic media included television, video games, computers, tablets and other electronic media.

Among the different types of media, television was used the most frequently. The team found that mothers with higher degrees of education were more likely to talk about media content with their children and typically had children who watched more educational programs.

According to Sarah Domoff, research fellow at the University Center for Human Growth and Development and one of the authors of the study, the goal was to better comprehend the implications of television and other media on preschoolers so that potential long-term risks may be prevented.  

“Our inspiration is that we know that we live in this digital age where preschoolers are gaining increasing access to screen media,” Domoff said. “Screen media continues to appear to grow over time. It is important to understand what it means for a child’s health and development.”

The discussion between a mother and her child about the viewed media content fell into one of three categories: no content about the media, exchange of brief utterances about media content, and mother and child processing content together. The team found that 54 percent of the mother-child interactions contained no content about the media.

Domoff said the messages conveyed on television are impressionable on children, so it is important for mothers and children to process the content together to encourage children to question and think critically about the media content.

“For example, we know from other studies when parents challenge different advertising methods, children are less likely to request products that are advertised,” Domoff said. “For other types of media effects, how parents manage the content children are exposed to appears to mitigate the effects.”

However, Domoff said it’s not always possible for parents to give their full and undivided attention to a child because of other responsibilities. She added that it can be a challenge for parents to make the time to not only supervise but also to actively participate in media viewing with their children.

“It is hard when there are so many competing demands on parents,” Domoff said. “It is hard to engage in communication when you have limited time because of work schedule and the needs of the other siblings.”

Schoenebeck said she hopes people will reevaluate how they view and interact with the media based on the newfound knowledge about media effects.

“A lot of it is just raising awareness so people can possibly modify their behaviors,” Schoenebeck said. “I think the major takeaway is that people are more aware of their behaviors and the impact they have.”


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