With a quick Google Search, I discovered that Congress has declared June to be Internet Safety Month. Since it’s also Great Outdoors Month, Dairy Month, and National Fruit and Vegetable Month, it seems appropriate to tip my hat to the legislators who clearly have my children’s well-being at heart.
I’ve been thinking a lot about media lately and about how all the many facets of technology are shaping my practice of medicine for the better. My smartphone makes me feel smarter each time I look up a rare genetic condition that I memorized in medical school (and for which I have lost the detailed specifics.) I can easily verify the dose of medication I don’t prescribe very often just as easily as I can be sure that ‘Mollies’ and ‘Ecstasy’ are the same drug. But my ‘hand-held computer’ (as I like to call my iPhone to inspire careful handling)… it can be a toy just as easily as a tool.
At home, I’ve been giving some thought to how our family uses screen time. I’ve begun to call it our Media Diet and talk about how I’m trying to ‘serve up’ a balance of beans and screens. As a media lover, both in my practice and at home, I was excited to read the 52-page report from Northwestern University titled “Parenting in the Age of Digital Technology.” The researchers surveyed thousands of parents with children under eight and learned a lot about how families see and use screen media in their everyday lives. They identified three family “media types.” While I don’t have children in the survey age range any more, I like to think the data is relevant to all families. I still have the original Jumpstart Computer Games in a box somewhere, and we probably have more Gameboys than I’d care to admit (many in Number Two’s collection of ‘Mostly Broken Things’). Before diving into the data, I guessed we would be a Media-centric Family for sure. As it turns out, not so much! (I tried to include visuals from the report here so you could see, but my blogging software had other ideas. You can read the full report here.(CLICK)
An average of 11 hours and 3 minutes in front of a media screen characterizes a media-centric family, and that seems, well… like a lot to me! Even counting my EMR Charting Screen Time at the office, I don’t come close to logging that much time. I admit that Clifford the Big Red Dog was often on my kitchen TV while I was getting dinner ready when the kids were small, and TV is a common choice for ‘Friday Family Night;’ but my children don’t have computers or TVs in their bedrooms, and the den TV is off when no one is watching it. So what does that say about the Media Diet I serve up? Does it make me a media-light parent even though I want us to be media–savvy and -centric?
For all the positive benefits I see in raising children who can use technology to problem solve, to connect with one another, and to keep themselves organized, I acknowledge the need for balance. I love it that my children can pitch an idea in a PowerPoint and have taught me to use Prezi, but I wish they took advantage of more ways to relax than the “Screen + Couch Plop.” Video games not withstanding, when I look at my family, I do see a balanced consumption of media, and that overview feels like the benefits outweigh the very real downside.
That brings me to the question that prompted this column: Do I have my head in the sand? Am I really a victim of the Third-person Effect which asserts that the ‘bad’ effects of screen time are affecting someone else’s children but not mine? Read to the end of the Parenting in the Digital Era Report, and you will find the raw data and what I thought was the most interesting part of the survey. The way parents view media clearly shapes how our children use it; but compared to many other parenting concerns (like health and education), we seem to worry very little about the negative aspects of media exposure. We can acknowledge that it may be linked to childhood obesity, for example, but probably not in our own families. The study authors write that “parents’ attitudes toward media are more nuanced than initially expected.”
Nuanced. I like that. I think that translates into “More study is needed.” Smart parents in the digital era are paying attention to all this because our common-sense gut-feeling will tell us, long before a research study does, if we are achieving the proper balanced media diet.