Overstimulated Consumers or Next-Generation Learners? Parent Tensions About Child Mobile Technology Use

Ann Fam Med. 2016 Nov;14(6):503-508. doi: 10.1370/afm.1976.


Purpose: Mobile technology is ubiquitous, but its impact on family life has not been thoroughly addressed in the scientific literature or in clinical practice guidelines. We aimed to understand parents' views regarding mobile technology use by young children, aged 0 to 8 years, including perceived benefits, concerns, and effects on family interactions, with the goal of informing pediatric guidelines.

Methods: We conducted 35 in-depth, semistructured group and individual interviews with English-speaking caregivers of diverse ethnic backgrounds, educational levels, and employment statuses. After thematic saturation, results were validated through expert triangulation and member checking.

Results: Participants included 22 mothers, 9 fathers, and 4 grandmothers; 31.4% were single parents, 42.9% were of nonwhite race or ethnicity, and 40.0% completed high school or less. Participants consistently expressed a high degree of tension regarding their child's mobile technology use, from which several themes emerged: (1) effects on the child-fear of missing out on educational benefits vs concerns about negative effects on thinking and imagination; (2) locus of control-wanting to use digital devices in beneficial ways vs feeling that rapidly evolving technologies are beyond their control (a tension more common in low-income caregivers); and (3) family stress-the necessity of device use in stressed families (eg, to control a child's behavior or as an inexpensive learning/entertainment tool) vs its displacement of family time.

Conclusions: Caregivers of young children describe many novel concepts regarding use of mobile technology, raising issues not addressed by current anticipatory guidance. Guidance may be more effectively implemented if it takes into account parents' uncertainties, locus of control, and functional uses of mobile devices in families.

Keywords: child development; media; parenting.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attitude to Computers*
  • Caregivers / psychology*
  • Cell Phone / statistics & numerical data*
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Emotions
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Learning
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Parents / psychology*
  • Stress, Psychological
  • United States
  • Young Adult