Dear Ms. Smartphone: Is it good for kids to move to the suburbs? My son and his family plan to move out of the city to a home about 20 miles away. He said his three children are spending too much time on the Internet and also when they move they will each have their own bedroom. I think where they live today is just fine even though they share rooms. Do you think this move will really help the children when it comes to using the Internet less? As I see it, there are so many fun things to do here in my neighborhood. Judy, Brookline
Dear Judy: Your son is not alone- there is a narrative that families are doing an exodus from big metro centers these days. Working from home in tight quarters is a chief reason to move out with the closure of favorite restaurants and hangouts. But to answer the question you pose, what are the differences of urban vs. suburban? The picture at the top is from a 1997 book that argued that the suburbs were stressful, unhealthy places to live. Now the pendulum swings back.
This chart, which comes from an extensive U.S. time-use study in 2019, shows little difference in what people do in suburbs vs. cities, even with an outdoor activity like playing sports. You asked about media, and that’s not exactly captured, although the categories of watching sports and leisure/relaxing are closely related.
Behind Closed Doors:
In a bigger home with separate bedroom parents will have less ability to see and watch what their kids are doing on the Internet, particularly if the kids used to browse from a shared computer or tablet. Today, bedrooms often do double duty as arcade and game rooms. But, it’s a balance for families- if Mom or Dad telework, they need to be able to shut the door too.
In the suburbs your son and his family will be spending more time driving, either to see you in Brookline, or for work and school. Kids playing with phones in cars, even as a passenger, is not a good habit. The car is an essential place for conversation, for looking out the window, and managing in-between time. I sometimes wonder if parents who talk a lot on their own phones as they drive, and/or let little kids use their phones in the car imbue a habit that lasts for a lifetime…. when these kids grow up, they become drivers on phones, and drive unsafe.
Inside Closed Cars:
And, speaking of driving, when people move to suburbs with children, kids are generally less independent, unless there are safe sidewalks and bicycles to travel on. Otherwise, these children need to rely on their parents or caregivers to drive them almost everywhere. When children can’t socialize in person or go places, they might spend more time on their computers or phones, either playing video games or going on social media.
Ultimately, it will be up to your son and his family to set new rules, and to manage how much time the children spend on the Internet. I hope that the move works out well for the family and you will be there helping them manage the changes.