Where are parents seeking information about their children’s health and digital technology use?

Written by Danica Hendry, Leon Straker, and Juliana Zabatiero

Digital technology is ubiquitous in the lives of many families with young children and a concern for many parents. In 2021, The Australian Child Health Poll identified “excessive screen time” as the number one parental concern for their children, with more than 90% of parents identifying it as problematic. Additionally, parents commonly find screen time guidelines unrealistic to follow and guilt provoking. As a result, mixed perspectives and practices often exist amongst parents surrounding technology use with and by their young children. However, it is not always clear what influences these perspectives, or how parents access information about digital technology use for their children, and why they choose the sources that they do.

Existing research exploring the ways that parents access health-related information for their children commonly focuses on specific health conditions rather than looking at children’s health more broadly and has not considered very young children. The first three years of a child’s life is an important stage, with substantial neurophysiological development. It can be a difficult time for parents, who are continuously faced with navigating new challenges, such as sleep, feeding, and motor and cognitive development. Added to this, is the challenge of navigating raising a child in a rapidly evolving digital world, with no clear road map.  

We recently completed an interview-based study of 20 Australian parents of children aged 0-3 years to explore how parents of young children access health-related information for their children, with a particular focus on information about digital technology use. Parents’ practices surrounding access of “traditional” health-related information for their children differed to how they accessed information about their children’s digital technology use. For health-related information, parents primarily accessed online sources. Specifically, they turned to recognised organisational and Government websites, in particular the Raising Children Network, and social media platforms, in particular Facebook, where parents used parenting forums, and Instagram, where they followed influencers.

In choosing where they accessed health-related information for their children, parents valued information which they perceived as trustworthy, easily accessible and based on current evidence. For many parents, websites were perceived as trustworthy if they were local to Australia and linked to government or broadly recognised organisations, or had been recommended by family, friends and health professionals. The trustworthiness of social media sources was linked more to the relatability and shared experience of social media influencers and other parents. The professional background of social media influencers also increased trustworthiness, where many parents followed health and education professional influencers.  In contrast, there were a few parents in the study who chose not to use social media as a health information source, as they found it unreliable, overwhelming, non-regulated and often misleading. Parents’ choices to use online sources as a primary source of health-related information for their children was also impacted by COVID-19, where parents felt they needed to source health-related information from alternative sources due to travel restrictions and reduced availability of face-to-face consults with health professionals.

When it came to sourcing information about digital technology use for their children, parents’ practices and perspectives were vastly different. In fact, few parents had accessed information about their child’s digital technology use. Instead, they based decisions about their children’s digital technology use on their personal values and beliefs surrounding digital technology, which were often influenced via negative and fear mongering mainstream media messaging about digital technology use. For some parents, particularly those with children under the age of 18 months, they felt that there was so much to navigate in their parenting journey, that they hadn’t yet thought much about digital technology use outside of which white noise machine to purchase to help their child sleep. However, they recognised that digital technology use was something they would need to think about in the future, so it is likely that if this study was repeated with parents of older children, their practices surrounding access of information would be very different.

For those parents who did access information on children’s digital technology use, their focus was on screen time, as opposed to how screens are used. It is possible that this focus reflects the past and current Australian Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour guidelines, which have a strong focus towards the amount of sedentary screen time as opposed to how we can navigate the risks of digital technology use and harness the benefits.

The findings of this study highlight a need for a shift in translation of research findings to support community practices, towards utilising broader sources and strategies to allow effective research translation to help empower parents in making positive decisions about their young children’s digital technology use. This could be achieved through continuing to form and strengthen partnerships and relationships with not only recognised and trusted organisations, but trusted social media influencers and parenting forums, to support parents in raising their children in an ever-evolving digital world.  

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