Kids, Families & the Tech Time Tango

As seen in Kidscreen

Kids, Families and the Tech Time Tango

Dateline: Southwestern Europe, approx. 5000 yrs. ago

Cave Mom: “Son, you spend too much time playing with that new-fangled technology. You should be outside playing ‘Mastodon Hunt’ with your friends; better yet, practicing your fire-building.”
Cave Boy: ‘Ohhh Mom, my friends are all inside playing with their wheels too!”
Cave Mom: (Sigh) “Fine. But only until sunset, you’ve got cavework to do.”

Kids, Families and the Tech Time Tango - disagreements over electronic device usage

It’s an old story, retold every generation. New entertainment technology enters the home and parents are ambivalent about its presence. They recognize that their kids enjoy using each new tech device that crosses their threshold; yet they lament the ‘loss of childhood’ that results from their kid’s frequent use of those devices. The crux of this dilemma is TIME, as in, how much time should their kids use tech? This tech-time management issue is a major concern in many households. After all, parents want their kids to be happy. One way to make them happy is to allow them time to use their devices. However parents are also trying to be ‘good parents’- the type that limit their child’s tech time. Adding to parental ambivalence is the fact that that the respite a screen-enthralled child gives them to complete daily tasks, or, increasingly, to be enthralled with a screen themselves, is a time that is often cherished. Understanding this tech-time pas de deux between parent and child will help you understand the daily doings of American households.

Stepped on Toes

In this tech-time dance, kids follow their parents’ lead. But the dance isn’t always harmonious. In early results from a large field study conducted by KidSay and The Marketing Store Worldwide as part of their upcoming white paper on kids and technology, half of kids 8-15 (51%) report that they have argued or disagreed with their parents over technology use. The foci of those disagreements are numerous. Of those that argue, 70% report they argue about the amount of time they use electronic devices. 41% have disagreements about how electronic devices ‘get in the way of other things in (their) life’. 33% have disagreements with parents about the cost of devices, while 32% argue about the activities done on those devices. Some kids (7%) report living in very tech-contentious households, reporting that they argued about every one of these topics with their parents. As the numbers attest, electronic devices and their usage instigate a number of conflicts between child and parent. As for which of those topics kids and parents ‘disagree about the most’* 45% of kids who argue with their parents about electronic devices report that the #1 topic of dispute is the amount of time they’re using them. As one 8 yr. old girl told KidSay, “Dad takes my iPod (Touch) away sometimes because he says I’m on it too much.” This issue of ‘time’ is even more contentious than the numbers indicate. Qualitative research in support of the study shows that many of the 17% of kids who told us they most frequently argue with parents about the impact their use has on other aspects of their lives are, in many respects, talking about ‘time’. As a mom of a 14 yr. old boy told us, “I don’t have a problem with his video games per se, but the time he spends playing them means he’s missing out on so much.” When asked for an example of a recent disagreement that arose regarding this issue she recalled, “We drive to see his grandmother. It’s a beautiful trip, maybe an hour and a half through the countryside. Besides him missing out on the scenery, which, I get, is something he doesn’t think is important; he’s not a part of our trip, our conversation, because he’s plugged into his PSP. That’s not ok with me… I decided to compromise and told him he could use it only one way. He chose on the way up, which I knew meant that it would be an issue on the way home. Sure enough it was. He sulked and didn’t join the conversation anyway. I don’t know what to do. It feels like a lose-lose.” Her son’s retort spoke directly to the conflict between kids and parents. He said, “Mom is always telling me that I’m wasting my life playing video games. She wants me outside or doing other stuff. but if I wanted to do other stuff I would. I like playing my games and I’m usually playing them with friends. That’s what she doesn’t get. For her being social means being with someone in the room. Me and my friends don’t have to do that. We’re being social all the time, just not like she (his Mom) thinks it should be.”

A Kid’s Take on Parental Perception

This back-and-forth is common. KidSay’s Trend Tracker reveals that 42% of kids 8-15 say their parents feel they use electronic devices too much (27% ‘a little too much’, 15% ‘way too much’). This sentiment varies slightly depending, as most things in the kids’ market do, on the age and gender of the respondent. Tweens (kids ages 8-11) feel less pushback from parents than teens (ages 12-15) regarding tech-time. 37% of tweens report that their parents think they’re spending too much time on devices, while 46% of teens say the same. Interestingly, the same percentage of both tweens and teens feel their parents thought they were spending ‘way too much time’ on devices (15%). Thus the difference between the tweens and teens is based entirely on parental perception of spending ‘a little too much time’ (Tweens – 22%, Teens – 31%). When considering gender, boys and girls ages 8-15 equally perceived that their parents thought they spent ‘a little too much’ time using tech (26%). Small gender differences in perception are found in the ‘way too much’ response, (13% of boys 17% of girls). Looking holistically at age and gender differences, it’s no surprise that it’s teen girls (19%) who are the age/gender sub group most likely to report that their parents think they’re using electronics way too much. We don’t have an objective assessment of who is actually spending more time on devices (girls or boys) but data suggests that the perception of teen girls is rooted in reality. Girls, whose electronic device of choice is the smartphone, are more likely to be using it in places where their parents are present. In contrast, boys, especially tween boys, are more likely to spend a majority of their electronic device time using a video game consul. These consuls, found mostly in bedrooms or in secluded play areas (den, basement, etc) are less likely to be in their parents’ proverbial face during use. It’s a classic case of ‘out of sight, out of nagging sightlines’. This issue of parental concern over the amount of time kids use tech begins much earlier than the tween years. KidSay’s Mom’s Tracker (moms of kids ages 5-7) shows that approximately 2/3 of moms report having household rules regarding the use of electronics. Having a ‘time limit’ is the rule mom’s rank #1 as ‘most important’ for every device tracked (TV – 44%, computer – 34%, video games – 40%). When we expand that notion of time to include time-based restrictions such as ‘weekends only’, ‘after homework’, ‘before bedtime’ etc, we learn that almost half of the households with rules for tech have time usage as the #1 concern.

Helping Families Do the Time Dance

With regards to tech-time, keeping kids happy is easy. They’re not the ones seeking time limits. Give them unlimited time to play games, text, surf the web, social network etc, and they’re not only content, they’re blissful. It is parents that not only wish to impose time limits; it is parents who must implement and enforce them. Thus, efforts to help families find this balance must be centered on helping parents.

  • If You’ve Got It, Flaunt It: An example of a product that has a time-control strategy in place is Microsoft’s Xbox. The Xbox has Parental Controls that allow parents to set time constraints regarding use. However, of the dozen parents of Xbox playing kids that KidSay talked with, none knew of these controls. You can’t leverage a parent-friendly aspect of your product unless parents are aware of it. Making them aware gives you an advantage that could make a difference in a fiercely competitive marketplace.
  • Provide Structure: If you don’t have built-in controls, provide parents with external resources (suggestions, ‘contracts’, time charts, etc.) that they can use with their kids. Research on parental/child relationships has demonstrated that concrete, tangible limits established together and readily visible helps families avoid confrontation and disagreements.

Help families solve their tech-time conflicts and they’ll see you as a company that cares about the lives they lead.

Terence Burke

Terence Burke

SVP of Research, Editor-in-Chief KidSay's Trend Tracker at KidSay
Terence Burke is one of America’s leading kid experts. He is co-creator of KidSay’s Trend Tracker, a noted research report that many of the world’s most successful companies rely upon to understand kids and their rapidly-changing world. As the Trend Tracker’s editor-in-chief and principle writer since its inception, Terence has disseminated his kid-market expertise since 1999. The knowledge and insight Terence has acquired in his role as Trend Tracker editor and KidSay’s Senior VP of Research has led to multiple invitations to speak at Nickelodeon, Disney, McDonald’s, Reebok, Build-A-Bear, Activision, Kraft and Hasbro, among others. In addition to his research experience Terence has a Master’s degree in Therapeutic Education. He spent over two decades teaching emotionally handicapped students and, most recently, teaching inner-city youth at DreamYard High School in the Bronx, NY. Terence’s proudest achievements are being a husband to Katherine and a father to Alden, Selby, and Tristan.
Terence Burke
About the Author

Terence Burke

Terence Burke is one of America’s leading kid experts. He is co-creator of KidSay’s Trend Tracker, a noted research report that many of the world’s most successful companies rely upon to understand kids and their rapidly-changing world. As the Trend Tracker’s editor-in-chief and principle writer since its inception, Terence has disseminated his kid-market expertise since 1999. The knowledge and insight Terence has acquired in his role as Trend Tracker editor and KidSay’s Senior VP of Research has led to multiple invitations to speak at Nickelodeon, Disney, McDonald’s, Reebok, Build-A-Bear, Activision, Kraft and Hasbro, among others. In addition to his research experience Terence has a Master’s degree in Therapeutic Education. He spent over two decades teaching emotionally handicapped students and, most recently, teaching inner-city youth at DreamYard High School in the Bronx, NY. Terence’s proudest achievements are being a husband to Katherine and a father to Alden, Selby, and Tristan.