Parents attached to digital devices more likely to yell at their kids, are less ‘present’ in their lives

WATERLOO, Ontario — Too much screen time isn’t just a problem for kids, a new study finds parents also pick up several bad habits when they stare at their smartphones all the time.

Researchers from the University of Waterloo discovered that parents and caregivers who consume too much digital media for relaxation end up engaging in negative parenting practices, such as yelling at their kids and nagging. The team started their investigation at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Previous studies have found that screen time and digital media use has skyrocketed during this time.

On average, the study finds parents and caregivers spend three to four hours a day consuming digital media.

“All members of the family matter when we try to understand families in a society saturated with technology,” says lead author Jasmine Zhang, a master’s candidate in clinical psychology at Waterloo, in a university release. “It’s not just children who are often on devices. Parents use digital media for many reasons, and these behaviors can impact their children.”

Parents are retreating from the real world thanks to digital media

The researchers surveyed 549 parents with at least two children between five and 18 years-old during their study. Each parent provided information about their own use of digital technology, their mental health and the mental health of their kids, how their family functions, and their parenting practices.

Moms and dads that had higher levels of mental distress engaged in more screen time and were more likely to turn to digital devices when they were looking to relax. Unfortunately, this higher amount of screen time displayed a connection to parents yelling and nagging their children more often. The team also found poor parenting habits were more likely to pop up when digital technology interrupted family interactions.

Researchers note that their study did not focus on a specific app or website parents like to visit. Instead, the study found caregivers who use screens too much were simply retreating from being present in their family’s lives — leading to poorer parenting habits.

Catching up with friends is a key exception

The study found one key exception when it comes to parents using digital media. Moms and dads who maintain their social connections through online means (such as catching up with friends via email or messenger apps) displayed lower levels of anxiety and depression. These parents also engaged in more positive parenting practices, such as listening to their kids and boasting about their achievements.

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

“The family media landscape continues to grow and become more prominent,” adds Dillon Browne, Canada Research Chair in Child and Family Clinical Psychology and professor of psychology at Waterloo. “Going forward, it’s important to consider the nuances of digital media as some behaviors are related to well-being, and others are related to distress.”

The study is published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

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