According to the latest figures from the Spanish National Institute of Statistics (INE), seven out of every 10 young children and adolescents between 10 and 15 years old in the country have a mobile phone, creating a relentless environment in which young people need to learn how to regulate their use of these and other digital devices.
In order to achieve this, their parents and older siblings are key factors in two aspects: as role models, and for establishing boundaries and guidelines. Those are the conclusions of a study by the eHealth Center at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) and the University of Girona (UdG), which also reveals a surprising result: 60% of adolescents are not subject to any rules in their home governing how they use tech devices, including mobile phones, televisions, computers, tablets and video game devices.
According to the authors of the study, which was published in the Journal of Family Issues, this situation needs to be addressed: “If we don’t set any kind of rules, young children and adolescents won’t regulate themselves, because they’re not mature enough to do so. But if we impose some rules, their immediate response may be to break them, because that’s part of being an adolescent.” That is the argument put forward by Merche Martin Perpiñá, psychologist, faculty member at the UOC and the UdG, and one of the authors of the study, which was carried out based on the data she compiled for her doctoral thesis.
Negotiate, take an interest and learn
“We talk about active mediation, or in other words, negotiating, reaching agreements, and talking,” said Martin. As a psychologist, she underlined the benefits of taking an interest in what children do with tech, and learning from them at the same time: “If as a parent you’re interested in how your child did in their sports match, you might also take an interest in how they got on playing the video game. Otherwise, this channel for communication will be closed. And it’s very important to be able to talk openly about what adolescents do with their mobile phones, social media and computers. We can give them advice about safety, fake profiles and conversations with strangers and, at the same time, our children can show us how TikTok works or how to make a specific type of video.”
Martin is a co-author of the study, together with the UdG faculty members Sara Malo and Ferran Viñas, and the members of the Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences at the UOC Modesta Pousada and Beni Gómez-Zúñiga, who are also members of the UOC eHealth Center’s Behavioural Design Lab research group.
A thousand adolescents
The study, Family Context Surrounding the Use of Technologies and Their Impact in Adolescents’ Media Multitasking, was published online in 2021. It uses data collected just over five years ago, which focus on how 977 students between 11 and 18 years old attending six schools in the Alt Empordà region of Catalonia think about the use of tech devices in their homes. It is pioneering because it investigates the technological profile of families in relation to the adolescents’ use of tech.Media multitasking
Its analysis of how devices are used takes in both the frequency and simultaneity of tasks, i.e. media multitasking. “We asked them whether they did other things while they were studying or doing their homework, such as talking on the phone, listening to music, watching a television series or anything else that required the use of a screen,” said Martin. Those who reported engaging in the most media multitasking said that their parents and siblings use tech devices at home to the greatest extent. Whereas, the existence of rules does not have a major effect on the degree to which adolescents perform media multitasking.
“If I’m studying, and I’m continuously looking at messages on WhatsApp, I’m paying only partial attention to each thing. This can have an impact on the time it takes me to study, and lead me to make mistakes because I’m not fully focused. However, everyone does media multitasking, and when these young children and adolescents become adults and have a job, they’ll have to do it as well. But they must be able to put their phone on silent mode, and set it aside while they’re studying. It’s a question of striking a balance between the opportunities that technologies provide and awareness of the issue,” said Martin.
More technology at home – more extensive use
The wide range of statistical results provided by this research include the following data: 46.9% of the adolescents said there are between four and five mobile phones in their home; 34.7% have two or three video game devices; more than half have two or three computers at home, and two or three televisions. In addition, 38.3% acknowledge that they use their mobile phone continuously.
Likewise, the study links a large number of devices in the home to increased use. Accordingly, the UOC expert pointed out: “Although there are no magic solutions, we need to bear in mind that if we have a television in every room, we’re encouraging everyone to watch what they want, whenever they want. If we only have one television in a shared space, we’re going to spend more time together and we’re going to have to negotiate what we watch.”
The present and the future
Could anything have changed in the five years since the data were collected? “I think that if we asked the same questions now, we’d find an even greater use of devices, and I want to be optimistic and think we’d find more rules. In fact, when we collected the data, there wasn’t too much interest in the results of our study, and today we can see interest; we receive a lot of requests to give talks and advice to help regulate adolescents’ use of tech,” she explained.
The team of researchers plans to continue studying how the family environment affects use of tech devices by adolescents, taking further variables into account, including the thoughts of parents, and the perceptions of teachers.