Newswise — Smartphones can play an important role in family life, from keeping in touch through text messaging to sharing pictures from that beach vacation.

But the mobile technology that helps keeps kids occupied over the summer can serve as a distraction when school is back in session. The beginning of another academic year presents a good time for parents to talk with children about limiting screen time on their smartphones or computers.

Before gathering around the dinner table for those sometimes-contentious conversations, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee sociology associate professor Noelle Chesley says, parents should remember just how much their kids are already exposed to technology outside the house.

“I think there are some good reasons for parents to think about ways to monitor screen time to the extent that they can,” Chesley said. “Keep in mind that we have a social environment now where that’s harder than ever.

“Even in a lot of school environments now, we’re migrating a lot of the learning into online, putting textbooks online, having students only completing their homework online,” she added.

Chesley, who is also director of undergraduate studies in sociology in the College of Letters & Science, offers more insight into the role that technology plays in family life, the discussion about setting limits and related topics.

Monitoring strategies

Chesley cites work from the Pew Research Center that shows that about one-third of parents are very worried about their children’s screen time, especially around four issues:

  • Development of verbal communication skills
  • What children are sharing online over social media
  • Cyberbullying
  • Access to inappropriate, including sexually explicit, content

Common strategies that parents use to monitor screen time include:

  • Checking their children’s browsing history
  • Looking through text messages
  • Taking away or limiting privileges with the internet or device usage

But the research isn’t clear about what are the most effective strategies, and whether they’re working, Chesley said.

“I would tell them that I think it’s a free-for-all right now,” she said when asked about what advice she would offer about setting boundaries. “I don’t think that we have great evidence about what works and what doesn’t.”

Evolving conversations

The conversations taking place now about the role of technology in social life fit into longer historical trends. For instance, in the 18th century there was concern about the “epidemic” of reading across Europe, and how books might be corrupting youth, she said. Similar debates arose when telephones and then televisions were introduced into households.

Today, digital life is firmly embedded in our social experiences.

“So what that means is that opportunities to do things like limit screen time, or whatever we’re wanting to debate, aren’t just about personal preferences anymore, but also about the strong expectations from those around you,” Chesley said.

As an example, she pointed to how social norms have changed around text messaging.

“Now if you don’t respond pretty quickly back, there’s going to be social ramifications for that,” Chesley said. “That wasn’t always the case when texting was first emerging.”

Evolving norms can influence the kinds of rules that families set around technology. In the future, those conversations could also include emerging fields like virtual reality, robotics and artificial intelligence.

Role of policy-makers

The discussion goes beyond individual parenting strategies, Chesley said, since policymakers “have struggled to keep legislation in line with emerging technology.”

Some online platforms are designed to be more manipulative with kids, encouraging them to spend more time on screens, she said. Targeted advertising to children is another area of concern.

“We’re not as worried about creating kid-healthy content as we should be,” Chesley said. “We had these same debates with television — we need to be legislating more content kinds of issues in our current environment.”

Blurred lines

In many fields, the use of smartphones and a rise in telecommuting have created around-the-clock work environments where jobs can be performed anyplace from the office cubicle to a coffeeshop to one’s bedroom.

“It’s true that personal life can intrude into work, but it tends to work the other way around in most cases,” Chesley said.

“And that’s had some benefits for workers, but it’s also had some costs for family life and family relationships,” she added. “So in my work, I’ve shown that digital blurring has heightened people’s distress and it’s lowered their satisfaction with family life.”