What Digital Media Use Says About Your Parenting

A new study has found that parents who use digital media for leisure are more likely to engage in poor parenting practices.

The results of the study have been published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

The new study led by the University of Waterloo aimed to investigate the relationship between caregivers’ use of digital media, mental health and parenting practices at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. On average, caregivers spend three to four hours a day using digital media.

“All family members are important when trying to understand families in a technology-saturated society,” said Jasmine Zhang, lead author of the study and masters candidate in clinical psychology at Waterloo. “It’s not just children who often use devices. Parents use digital media for many reasons, and these behaviors can impact their children.”

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To conduct the study, the researchers interviewed 549 participants who were parents of at least two children between the ages of 5 and 18. Caregivers provided information about their digital use, their own and their children’s mental health, family functioning and parenting practices.

The researchers found that caregivers with higher levels of distress engage in more screen-based activities and were more likely to turn to relaxation devices. This use was correlated with negative parenting practices such as bullying and yelling. They also found that negative parenting behaviors were more likely when technology interrupted family interactions. The experiment did not focus on specific apps or websites that caregivers use, but rather found that caregivers who spend time on screens withdrew from being present with their families, which is correlated to negative parenting practices.

However, not all media consumption was correlated with negative outcomes: maintaining social connections through digital channels was linked to lower levels of anxiety and depression and higher levels of positive parenting practices such as listen to their children’s ideas and talk about the good that their children are doing.

“When studying how parents use digital media, we need to consider caregivers’ motivations for using the devices in addition to the time they spend on them,” Zhang said.

Dillon Browne, Canada Research Chair in Clinical Child and Family Psychology and professor of psychology at Waterloo, expects these trends to continue after the pandemic.

“The family media landscape continues to grow and become more prominent,” said Browne, co-author of the study. “Going forward, it’s important to consider the nuances of digital media, as some behaviors are linked to well-being and others to distress.”

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