School & District Management

Young Children’s Use of Mobile Tech Has Tripled, Survey Finds

By Sarah Schwartz — October 19, 2017 5 min read
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The vast majority of U.S. families now have a mobile device, like a smartphone or tablet, and young children are spending more time using their devices than ever before, according to a new study from Common Sense Media.

The results are from Common Sense Media’s third nationally representative survey of media use among children ages 8 and younger.

Of all families surveyed, 98 percent have a mobile device in the home and 95 percent have a smartphone. The amount of time that the children studied spend engaging with screen media on mobile devices has tripled since 2013, from 15 minutes a day to 48 minutes a day.

Despite the rise in overall use of mobile devices, there hasn’t been a net increase in media use—a term comprising activities as diverse as watching videos, playing video games, video-chatting, or electronic reading. Children this age have an average of 2 hours and 19 minutes of total screen time a day, almost exactly the same amount as in 2011.

And children are still engaging in the same activities: The amount of time that kids spent playing games and watching videos—the two main media activities among children this age group—has seen no significant change from 2011 to 2017.

The main difference? Instead of watching DVDs, sitting in front of the television set, or playing video games on a console, kids are increasingly watching digital video clips or playing app-based games on mobile devices.

This shift toward mobile is also changing the way that families consume media together, said Michael Robb, the director of research for Common Sense Media.

“In years gone by, it used to be that there was a TV in the living room and parents could walk by and see what was happening. More than one kid was probably watching the same show,” he said.

But now, with mobile devices, media use is often much more individualized, with kids using a tablet or smartphone alone. Of all survey respondents, 42 percent said their child had their own tablet, compared to 7 percent in 2013 and less than 1 percent in 2011.

“Parents may not be as aware of what their kids are watching or what they’re playing,” said Robb.

Results were collected from a probability-based online survey of 1,454 parents of children ages 8 or younger. Common Sense conducted the survey in January and February of this year.

Developmentally Appropriate Content

Choosing online videos to watch on a mobile device gives parents and children a wider variety of options than broadcast TV alone, said Robb.

It may be easier to find content that is developmentally appropriate, he said, and some of the available educational tools—like early literacy and numeracy apps—can help equip young children with the skills they will need to enter kindergarten.

Parents are taking advantage of these options, the survey suggests. The most-watched online videos among respondents are those that aim to teach literacy, numeracy, or emotional development; 64 percent of parents said their children often or sometimes watch these videos.

“The flip side of that,” said Robb, “is that there’s also access to a much wider range of content that’s not very good for young children.”

Robb said parents should engage with their kids’ media use whenever possible, regardless of the medium. Not only does this ensure that children aren’t accessing inappropriate content, he said, it also turns watching videos and playing games back into social activities.

“If you can embed that media experience in that relationship between a parent and a kid, you’re much more likely to see positive benefits,” he said.

Even when families are watching together, parents should be making intentional choices about what children see and why, said Lee Wilson, interim general manager of education for Common Sense Media. “In general, we should be approaching especially the youngest children’s use with a skeptical eye,” he said. “Is this keeping the child busy, or is it actually teaching them something?”

Many parents are not especially purposeful in regulating children’s screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children not use screens in the hour before bed and that the TV remain off when not in use. Even so, about half of all parents in the Common Sense survey reported that their children often or sometimes watched videos or played video games in the hour before bedtime, and 42 percent of parents said the TV is on “always” or “most of the time” at home.

For the first time this year, Common Sense also asked parents about “smart” internet-enabled toys, voice-activated assistants, and virtual reality. One in 10 children lives in a household that has these devices, the survey found.

Demographic Divides

Though media consumption in general isn’t increasing, children in lower-income families spend over 1.5 hours more with media than children in higher-income households—and the gap has grown since the last Common Sense Media survey four years ago.

Children from lower-income households (defined by the survey as as having annual household income less than $30,000) consume an average of 3 hours and 29 minutes of media each day, compared to 1 hour and 50 minutes for children in higher-income households (having household incomes above $75,000).

It’s possible that children in lower-income households are using more media because the digital divide is narrowing, said Robb. Common Sense found that 74 percent of lower-income families had high-speed internet, compared to 46 percent in 2013, and 96 percent had a mobile device, compared to 61 percent in 2013.

But increased media use may reflect more than just increased access, he said. The extracurricular activities and other “cognitively enriching” experiences that occupy the time of children in higher-income households may not be an option for lower-income families.

This underscores the importance of free, developmentally-appropriate content, said Robb. How much time children spend watching videos is of less concern than the quality of the content they’re watching.

“There is absolutely a role for content creators to play to make the best of the best available to kids regardless of their income status,” he said. He cited PBS broadcasting as an example.

Parents want safeguards on content, the survey suggests. Seventy-six percent of parents strongly or somewhat agree with the statement, “the less time kids spend with screen media the better off they are.” Parents’ concerns run the gamut from exposure to violence, sexual content, depictions of drugs and alcohol use, advertising, cyberbullying, data collection, and stereotypes.

Graphics: Common Sense Media

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.