As it turns out, parents who allow devices in the household actually see an increase in the time the family spends together. There is a slight caveat, however.
Parents in the modern age often wonder if the increase in technology is increasing the space between them and the children who will eventually bury them. As it turns out, families who screen together, stay together, as an increase in devices sees a direct increase in family time.
Sort of. While families are spending more time together, they’re doing so alone.
In 2019, two researchers (Killian Mullan from Oxford University and Stella Chatzitheochari from the University of Warwick) viewed time-use data from about 5,000 British families; from it, they noted a couple of spikes.
The researchers discovered that between 2000 and 2015, parents with kids aged 8-16 spent 9% more time together: 379 minutes per day in 2015, versus 347 minutes per day in 2000.
The families also spent roughly the same amount of time on “shared activities,” such as eating meals and watching TV.
But the biggest change was the rise in “alone-together” time—that is, in the same house but not in the presence of one another. So-called alone-together time jumped by 43% over the period of study, to 136 minutes per day in 2015.
“For all of the additional time they were together, children said they were alone,” Mullan said.
A lot of this alone-together time is taken up by tech, the researchers found. 2015 data suggested that children and parents used mobile devices for:
- 38% of total family time
- 47% of alone-together time
- 27% of shared activity time
Devices might be creeping into our activities, but they’re not taking them over. For example, the kids reported checking their phones for 90 seconds during meals. Adults reported checking their devices for twice the time as kids. Similarly, the same pattern holds when watching television; the youth checked their devices for about five out of the 30 minutes they were watching, while parents spent seven minutes on their phones during the same period.
The term “alone together” was authored by MIT professor Sherry Turkle, who believes our heightened disconnection has resulted in kids not knowing how to converse properly. “Across generations, technology is implicated in this assault on empathy,” she wrote in The New York Times. “We’ve gotten used to being connected all the time, but we have found ways around conversation—at least from a conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, in which we play with ideas and allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable.”
The authors of the study acknowledge this. “While we did not find any significant changes in the time family members spend interacting and doing things together,” Chatzitheochari said in a statement, “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.”
Mullan said the findings surprised him. “The perception that it’s all of the time, that the use of devices has taken over shared activities—we can show that it’s not that much time,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not important or not experienced as problematic.”
The research invites another question—if families are spending time together at home, what’s falling? “It seems over time there’s more of a move to carving out that time in the home at the expense of spending time outside the home,” he said.