Tuned In: Families and Parenting in Today’s Tech-Saturated Homes

Once upon a time, parents fretted over how much TV their children watched each day. With the advent of VCRs, that concern grew. So many parents limited the time, and the kinds of shows or movies, their kids watched. 

Their worry was not just about TV consumption, but how that consumption affected family time and interaction. 

Fast forward a couple of decades – and several technology generations – and that family dilemma is much more complicated. 

Sarita Schoenebeck

How technology affects today’s homes and families is the subject of a new UMSI grant, “Understanding Emerging Technologies in Domestic Contexts.” This grant, funded by Mozilla’s Emerging Technologies group, was awarded to Sarita Schoenebeck, assistant professor of Information. UMSI doctoral student Tawfiq Ammari will conduct much of the research.

“This work specifically looks at something more than what people are doing online,” Ammari says. “We’re looking at all of these new technologies emerging in homes: social media, smartphones, Echo, Siri, TV Stick.

Tawfiq Ammari

“It’s what researchers have called ‘ubiquitous computing.’ It’s omnipresent. So, first, we are looking at how people dealt with emerging technologies over history. With VCRs, you were judged as a parent by how much you controlled what your child watched. This management becomes part of your identity as a parent.”

The problem is that today’s technology involves much more than a TV screen and sitcoms. Technology is “invading homes” essentially, Ammari says. “It’s much more than, ‘Alexa, turn on the lights.’ It’s about: How do routines in the house change – like cooking dinner, home security and will you install smart cameras for security purposes? How about using these cameras to make sure your kids do their homework?”

Parents can’t just limit their kids’ time on devices, or prohibit interaction entirely, Ammari points out. Kids use technology for homework, for instance, so how do you define what’s “too much” time online or too much screen time? 

As new smart devices like Alexa, smart cameras, smart thermostats, trackers, and tablets enter our homes, it is imperative to understand how the introduction of these technologies affects the way families interact with technology and with each other, Ammari points out. 

“Such understanding will provide a blueprint for better product designs that allow families to negotiate their routines with minimal interruptions and challenges.” 

Posted January 8, 2018