Young people are spending increasingly more time on their computers and less time with their friends and family.
It is often said that people have gone to the internet to be social. However, Finnish children and young people regard the time they spend on the computer to be time spent alone.
“Although young people may be socially active in a virtual world, the time they spend using their computers is experienced as time alone, as a momentary escape from the social interaction of the family,” says Katja Repo, professor of social policy at the University of Tampere.
Nevertheless, new research at the University shows that television unites the family and creates interaction between children and their parents. Families with young children in particular spend time together watching television.
People can talk while they watch television because the television screen is more easily shared than a mobile phone display. In addition, the television has already played a role in Finnish family life for a long time.
“Mobile devices have not yet been domesticated in the family environment to the same degree”, researcher Aku Kallio explains.
However, the differences between the various devices may disappear in the future as more devices contain ever more functions. For example, television shows are often watched on a mobile phone or a tablet by projecting the programme onto a television screen.
Researchers investigated the role of the media in family interaction in Finland for the research project “Media, family interaction and children’s well-being”. The project, funded by the Academy of Finland and the University of Tampere, was carried out by PERLA – Tampere Centre for Childhood, Youth and Family Research.
Family life has become more demanding because of the growing numbers of entertainment devices in the home. Excluding their mobile and smartphones, the families participating in the research had on average seven devices. This is why the researchers concluded that conventional expert advice on guiding children’s media use fails.
“Experts still often like to repeat the old adage ‘love and limits’. However, this research shows that any moral rules given from outside the family are not a real help to parents,” says Anja-Riitta Lahikainen, professor emerita of social psychology.
The devices can be used so quickly and they are so ubiquitous in the home that parents cannot really control their children’s media use.
“Negotiating the use of devices and making agreements with children are time consuming processes. Children adopt the agreements they have made and obey the rules they have agreed with their parents based on having a trusting relationship,” Lahikainen says.
“In this sense, parents are very alone in this new situation.”
University lecturer Eero Suoninen says that parents would be better helped by highlighting the problematic situations in everyday media use and by talking about possible solutions. Experts could present real-life processes to parents and talk with them about what went right and wrong using examples.
“Rather than following one idea or guideline, an encounter with a researcher would be a place for presenting various scenarios and for coming up with different solutions to the family’s problems.”
Family interaction and the families’ media use were investigated using data gathered by visually recording everyday life in the families’ homes. The recordings revealed even short uses of computers or smartphones.
The researchers noticed that many things happen in family interaction in a short time. In the long run, these incidents build up into the family’s habits and practices of media use. For example, parents have many alternative ways of solving the problem of when a child refuses to stop looking at his/her mobile phone or does not stop playing a computer game.
Children are also quick to cheat their parents. The recordings showed how a boy switched from a forbidden game to a game he was allowed to play upon hearing his mother’s footsteps on the stairs.
“The fact that parents are not familiar with the devices offers an opportunity for cheating. The children may tell their parents that they cannot stop the game even though it would be perfectly possible to push the pause button,” Suoninen explains.
Besides video, interview and survey data, the research also used the Time Use Survey gathered by Statistics Finland. The survey was established in 1979 to collect information on how Finns use their time.
“Utter chaos” is what comes to Eero Suoninen’s mind when he is asked to describe family life today. On top of work pressures, parents must also be present for their children, educate them, set limits and run everyday life.
“In addition, new pressures keep cropping up. How do you use a mobile phone? How much time should you spend on the computer? When can we discuss things and when can we go to our virtual worlds?” Suoninen says.
The greater the number of devices, the greater the chaos
“All family members are able to choose what they do from one instant to the next: do they grab their mobile phones, tap away on the computer or turn on the television?” says Lahikainen.
The research showed the lure of devices. Parents also have a problem, especially with leaving their mobile phones alone. When a mother is concentrating on her smartphone, her children find it hard to get her attention.
“All family members must learn how to free themselves from their devices and engage in a different kind of interaction.”
Lahikainen recounts how she once saw a family of four at a seaside café in Helsinki. They were seated at a table close to a window with perfect views of the sea, and they had ordered coffee and cakes. However, both the children and the parents were busy tapping away on their mobile phones; nobody uttered a word to anyone else at the table in the entire time they were there.
“When all the family members see the world through their own devices, the range of worlds in the family grows so large that it is hard to find common ground for starting an actual conversation,” Lahikainen explains.
Gathering together for a meal is an important part of family interaction. In some families in the study, mobile phones were not allowed at the dinner table.
The research also showed that parents can be very creative in controlling the chaos. A parent might write an email whilst talking to a child sitting on her lap, and teens were shooed off their computers in inventive ways.
“There are always ways to handle the situation. The most important thing is that parents keep talking to their children and maintain contact with them,” Lahikainen emphasises.
Time spent on electronic devices is growing
• The time young people spent on computers exceeded the time they spent watching television at the beginning of the 2000s.
• In 2010, among 15–19 year-olds, boys spent an average of two hours and twenty minutes on the computer per day, while girls spent one hour and twenty-eight minutes.
Media lapsiperheessä. (Media in families with children, published in Finnish) Anja Riitta Lahikainen, Tiina Mälkiä and Katja Repo (eds.) Vastapaino 2015.
Text: Tiina Lankinen
Photograph: Jonne Renvall