Mobile devices don’t reduce shared family time: New research shows that mobile device use is now embedded into family life

The first study of the impact of digital mobile devices on different aspects of family time in the UK has found that children are spending more time at home with their parents rather than less — but not in shared activities such as watching tv and eating. The increase is in what is called ‘alone-together’ time, when children are at home with their parents but say they are alone.

Researchers from Oxford University and the University of Warwick found alone-together time has increased by nearly 30 minutes a day between 2000 and 2015, a period which saw the rapid diffusion of high-quality home internet and personal mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets.

While mobile devices were used at all times families were together in 2015, their use was particularly concentrated during alone-together time.

However, the study also found no evidence that device use had displaced traditional shared activities like family meals and watching television. Despite widespread concerns about the influence of mobile device use on family life, the amount of time UK families with children between 8 and 16 spend on shared activities remained largely unchanged at around 90 minutes per day.

The full results of the study, which draws on a nationally representative sample of close to 5,000 daily diaries from around 2,500 children and their parents, are published today in the Journal of Marriage and Family.

  • In 2000, on average, children and parents spent 347 minutes per day in the same location. Of this, 95 minutes was alone-together time and 84 minutes were spent in shared activities such as eating or watching TV
  • By 2015, on average, children and parents spent 379 minutes per day in the same location, an increase of 32 minutes. Of this, 136 minutes was alone-together time and 87 minutes were spent in shared activities such as eating or watching TV
  • In 2015, children and parents used mobile devices used for 38 per cent of total family time, 47 per cent of alone-together time, and 27 per cent of shared activity time
  • Older children (14 — 16) spent less time in shared activities with their parents and more time using devices, which was concentrated during alone-together time.

Commenting on the findings, Dr Killian Mullan, of the Centre for Time Use Research said:

“Our analysis has found that the overall family space has expanded, but it’s this alone-together time, when children and parents are in the same location but children are reporting that they are alone, which has made up the increase.

“While our data can’t tell us what has caused the change, a stronger focus on the home has long been predicted by previous work into the potential of technology to make the home environment a more attractive place to spend time. There’s also a possibility that parents prefer their children to be at home for safety reasons.

“Given this large increase in alone-together time, it is perhaps reassuring that we also found no decline in the amount of time families spent in shared activities between 2000 and 2015. This suggests that parents still value key aspects of traditional family life, such as family meals or shared hobbies, and seek to prioritise them in the face of pressure from technological change.”

Dr Stella Chatzitheochari, of the Department of Sociology, University of Warwick added:

“Our study is the first to measure the rapid spread of mobile devices across family life, revealing that children and parents will spend time on devices such as smartphones and tablets even while watching TV or eating together.

“The research shows that device use is now embedded into family life. While we did not find any significant changes in the time family members spend interacting and doing things together, it is certainly possible that mobile devices distract people’s attention during family activities, leading to feelings that the quality of family relationships is under threat.

“However, it is worth noting that mobile device use may be complementing family activities and also help children and young people build and maintain friendships outside of the home. Future research should build on our data to explore more deeply the ways in which the quality of family interactions is affected by mobile device use.”

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