Technology & Science·Q&A

Study asks parents, kids which technology rules work

Parents often set a lot of rules for their kids' technology use. But which rules are the most effective? And what rules would kids make if they were in charge? CBC Radio technology columnist Dan Misener looks at a new study that explores those questions.

Rules focused on activity best for kids, but kids want parents to pay attention and be present

A new study asked parents what type of rules around technology are most effective. But it also asked kids what rules they'd set for their parents. (iStockphoto)

No phones at the dinner table. No texting and driving. No Facebook until you're 15.

Parents often set a lot of rules for their kids' technology use. But which rules are the most effective? And what rules would kids make if they were in charge?

As CBC Radio technology columnist Dan Misener explains, that's what a new study aimed to find out.

What was the focus of the study?

The researchers — from the University of Washington and University of Michigan — wanted to better understand "family technology rules." Essentially, they were looking at the rules parents set for themselves, and for their kids, around technology use.

They surveyed about 500 parents and children, between the ages of 10 and 17, to try to understand what types of technology rules were most effective — and to see if parents and kids agreed on what they rules should be.

Spoiler alert — they didn't always agree.

But maybe what's most interesting about this research is they not only asked parents what they thought the rules should be for kids — they also asked kids what they thought the rules should be for parents.

What types of technology rules are most effective?

The researchers found one type of rule that was easier to obey, and easier to enforce. It's what they call an "activity constraint."

They're rules that have to do with a particular activity — for example, saying a child just isn't allowed to have a Snapchat account, or a rule that says they're not allowed to play a specific violent video game. Or saying they're not allowed to swear online — specific rules around specific activities.

A University of Washington study says 'activity constraint' rules, such as saying a child isn't allowed to play a specific video game, work best when it comes to setting guidelines for kids' technology use. (The Associated Press)
The researchers found that activity constraints were more effective than another category of rules, which they call "context constraints." Those are more nuanced rules, and have to do with when or where a technology can be used.

"No phones at the dinner table" or "no computer games until after you've finished your homework" are examples of context constraints.

Kids reported that activity constraints were easier to follow, and parents found they were easier to enforce.

What did kids say about their parents' technology use?

The researchers asked children what they thought the rules should be for parents in general, and for their parents specifically.

Alexis Hiniker was a researcher on a study that looked at effective technology use rules for parents and children. (
"One of the most common expectations that children had for their parents was that parents check in with children and ask for permission before they post anything about them online," said  Alexis Hiniker, one of the researchers.

"This was much more salient among children than among parents as an important expectation or practice that parents should live up to."

So essentially, kids were concerned about parental oversharing — or the "Mom, don't post photos of me on Instagram without asking" factor.

While parents and children agreed that parental oversharing was an issue, kids were almost three times as likely to say there should be rules around it.

What was the biggest issue kids identified?

Rules around parental oversharing were up there, but the number one issue identified by kids for their parents was being present and paying attention.

The University of Washington study asked kids what technology rules they'd set for their parents. The biggest issue children identified was parents distracted by technology. (Getty Images)
"These were rules about deferring to the social situation, and being responsive to the people that you're spending time with, and putting technology away as needed out of respect for those people," said Alexis Hiniker.

"So things like not bringing your phone to the dinner table, not using your phone in class, put your phone down when I'm talking to you, things like that."

To be clear, the kids they surveyed weren't saying that their parents didn't pay attention to them. They were simply saying there should be rules around being present, and paying attention — for example, putting the phone down when your child is trying to tell you something important.

Why is it important to better understand technology's impact on family dynamics?

First, because the technology challenge has become greater. Generations ago, it was easier to set rules and expectations around technology use, and to control access to the technology. Things were different when the TV or computer was in a shared family space.

But with always-on mobile devices in our pockets, the rules can be harder to monitor and enforce.

Second, in many cases, parents themselves have trouble setting and following the rules they set for themselves around technology — no email after work hours, no laptop in the bedroom, no texting while driving, for example.

Research has shown that parents' media habits predict children's media habits. So if kids are going to have healthy habits and limits, it's important to look not only at the rules we set for kids, but the rules we set for ourselves.

About the Author

Dan Misener

CBC Radio technology columnist

Dan Misener is a technology journalist for CBC radio and Find him on Twitter @misener.


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