This Digital Home, supported by Facebook, is a social research program examining the changing aspect of technology for Australian families in staying connected, informed and healthy through social isolation. Over June and July, the Alannah & Madeline Foundation gathered more than 450 multimedia responses from 21 Australian families addressing areas such as relationships, health and learning.
In more than 450 unique responses, the phrase “screentime” was rarely used by the families participating in This Digital Home. Families instead were seeking balance in how they use technology and were less worried about the specific amounts of time spent on screens.
Families are trying to find ways to maximise the beneficial aspect of technology, while reducing the negative impacts that they experience in their household.
Families shared a range of negative and challenging experiences relating to technology use in the home, but their descriptions were more detailed than the often parroted phrase – “we spend too much time on screens”. Families identified and described both positive experiences and negative experiences in the way technology impacted relationships, health and wellbeing, citizenship and learning.
More often, negative impacts were aligned to individual technology use while the positives more frequently related to time spent using technology with others. It is worth noting that spending time with others also includes spending time with each other on technology - playing online games, video calls or parallel technology use.
The complexity of family relationships was captured by one mother who shared her concerns about her own use and time on her phone and its impacts on her. Reflecting upon it, she wrote, “I know I have a lot on my plate and I’m doing my best, but working from home and having a baby and also being a pandemic can be socially isolating and the phone is a window on the world and connects me with my friends.”
Parents also described situations where children seemed to be spending time alone on their technology, but were actually engaged and connected to peers. Several families identified a difference in experience and behaviours associated with solo time spent playing games or on their phone, compared to time spent playing or talking with friends online.
Both adults and children recognised that there were issues with the ability to self-regulate, but it wasn’t the time spent that caused families the greatest concern, it was the behaviours and impact on their relationships that they focused on and spent more time trying to solve. As one mother writes, “One of the kids' favourite things to do on our phones is work on their Spotify or Netflix playlists. We don’t tend to count that in their 'gaming screentime'.”
Household members could identify others' excessive use or use that resulted in behaviours or moods that impacted on others, but did not identify those behaviors in themselves so well. For many families, finding ways to ensure technology didn’t impact on how they related or their health and wellbeing was a recurring theme.
The responses from children and young people demonstrate that they are very conscious of the impact that technology has on them and how they wish to manage it. One teenage boy liked to play video games after school to relax, and said that he is more social with the family after tea if he can do his gaming before tea. “I like to use technology to find funny things to show the rest of the family,” he said.
Another much younger boy, aged seven, was able to identify that “There is this app called Messenger Kids that is my favourite because I can check on what my friends are doing”. Other children identified that spending too long on technology impacted them physically and that their eyes or neck would be sore. It appears that the assumption that children do not have an understanding of the impact of technology on them and their family's health and wellbeing is worth reconsidering.
The research project now has a range of stories and strategies that can be compiled and shared about how families manage the use of technology in the home and try to maximise the benefits and positive aspects for technology as a family.
Examples include one low-tech family who actively discuss and encourage children to set their own screen use plan (see image), organising more complex ways of negotiating tech use like not counting creative use of technology as allocated screentime or ensuring homework or other activities are completed before being allowed to use technology.
We look forward to gathering and sharing more of these strategies as part of our reporting process.
In a world so reliant on technology and screens (and even more so during periods of isolation), This Digital Home demonstrates that one of the most complex challenges for households is the role that our individual technology use plays in relation to shared family technology use. Families are conscious of the need to find a balance that works for everyone and would benefit from more support with this.
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