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The Digital Divide: Does it Truly Exist Between Parents and Their Kids?

James P. Marshall, PhD, LMFT
University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, Department of Family Life

The term "digital divide" comes up frequently in discussions about kids and media use. It is commonly used to describe the differences between groups of people who use and know a lot about communication technologies – such as the internet, smartphones and tablets – and those who do not. The term can also be used to describe those who choose to use these technologies versus those who choose not to.

Many people assume, and the popular press has fueled the notion, that there is a growing digital divide between parents and children. For example, many of us have heard parents quip, "If you have a question about technology, ask your kids."

But is there really a digital divide between parents and children? And more importantly, is children's increased media use having a detrimental effect on their achievement or contributing to increased behavior problems? The surprising results of new research indicate the answers to both of these questions may be, "not really."

Although many kids are tech savvy, it turns out that most kids take their technology cues from their parents. New research from the Center on Media and Human Development at Northwestern University identified three different types of parenting styles regarding media: media-centric parenting, media-moderate parenting and media-light parenting. Thirty-nine percent of parents are media-centric. These parents spend a great deal of time using media themselves – about 11 hours per day. Since they enjoy using media, they create an environment in their home that is oriented toward media. They are also more likely to use media as a parenting tool than other parents. Children of media-centric parents spend nearly five hours a day using media.

Meanwhile, 45 percent of parents are media-moderate. These parents spend an average of just under five hours a day using media, and their children average just under three hours a day.

Another 16 percent of parents are media-light. These parents average less than two hours a day of media use, and their children average just an hour and a half. Media-light parents are the least likely to have media-oriented family activities or to use media as a parenting tool.

These different approaches to media result in very different media cultures in which children can grow up.

We have often assumed that children are the ones pressuring their parents to use more media, while parents are trying to rein them in. But it turns out that parents are the ones creating the media culture in their homes. They are the ones making choices about media that shape their children's behaviors. So there isn't as much of a digital divide between parents and children as many would think. Children's media usage usually mirrors that of their parents.

If parents are worried about the amount of time their child spends using media and technology, they ought to set the example by limiting their own media usage. They might choose to follow the recommendations set forth by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). The AAP discourages media use by children younger than 2 years old.

For older children and adolescents, the AAP recommends limiting the total amount of non-educational screen time to no more than two hours per day.

So what effect does all this media usage have on children's achievement and behavior? Researchers at the University of Maryland's Population Research Center found that although many parents are concerned about their children's level of media usage, their fears that their children would be increasingly isolated from peers, have more aggressive behavior or neglect their schoolwork were not realized.

Here's why: In 1997, children spent most of their electronic media time (about three hours per week) with computer and video games. By 2008, that shifted so that even though their electronic media time had more than doubled, computer and video games were a relatively small proportion of that time. Instead, children spent much more time with email and surfing the web. The Maryland researchers found that as children displaced some of their passive screen time (such as TV-watching and playing video/computer games) with active screen time (writing emails and reading web content), children actually experienced some modest improvements in reading and math achievement and problem-solving scores. They also were better able to engage in social interactions.

Many parents and experts worried that as children increased the number of hours they spent engaged in electronic media that they would decrease the number of hours they spent engaged in healthy activities such as reading, studying, playing sports, being active outside and socializing with friends. Turns out that hasn't been the case. Children have – maybe unwittingly – just replaced less beneficial forms of screen time with more beneficial ones.

Maybe the best advice for parents in the rapidly changing landscape of media and technology is to talk openly with your children about how they are using technology. It's okay to set some limits on the amount of time children spend using technology. But it's also wise for parents to explore and learn together with their children.

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