Classroom Technology

Media Usage Highest Among Poor, Minority Youth, Report Finds

By Leo Doran — November 16, 2015 3 min read
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Given the vast dissemination of portable information technology and the corresponding explosion in popularity of social media among young people in recent years, it’s not surprising that a big chunk of students’ time is spent consuming media on screen.

In fact, according to a recent study released by the advocacy and research nonprofit, Common Sense Media, black youths, impoverished youths, and those with parents who have at most a high school diploma consume the most media. Conversely, those from white families, those from high-income households, and those raised by parents with at least a college degree tend to consume slightly less media than their peers.

The San Francisco based non-profit surveyed 2,658 young people in the effort to better understand how much time students spend on screens—including watching TV or movies, surfing the Web, playing video or computer games, texting, coding, or chatting—as well as time spent off screen—including reading books or magazines, and listening to music.

As part of Common Sense Media’s mission, the group advocates forcefully for “clear policies and regulations to hold [the media and technology] industries accountable.”

The study divided the youths surveyed into two cohorts: 8- to 12-year-olds were dubbed “tweens,” while 13- to 18-year-olds are referred to as “teens.” The report also breaks down the data further within these cohorts by race and ethnicity, family income, and parent education.

Jill Murphy, vice president of Common Sense Media, summarized the data in an essay by saying that “American teens average about nine hours of media per day and tweens about six per day,” adding that for today’s youth, “It’s become harder to distinguish between screen time and just ... time.”

Notably, these figures do not include time spent consuming media related to school or homework. That data is laid out in a separate section of the full report.

Common Sense’s claim that teens spend nine hours per day with media has been picked up by numerous other outlets, including the LA Times and CNN.

A closer look at the study’s methodology, however, paints a somewhat different picture.

To begin with, while the study finds that tweens average 5:55 hours of media time and teens average 8:56 hours, those figures include time spent away from screens, including reading print and listening to music. When those activities are taken out, youths’ total media time drops to 4:36 hours and 6:40 hours, respectively.

The study’s estimates of “media time” are also shaped by the way in which the figures are calculated. On page 10 of the executive summary, the authors of the report point out that young people often utilize multiple mediums simultaneously—and under the study’s methodology, both of those experiences would count toward the total.

In other words, if a student surveyed spent an hour listening to music, while playing Xbox, the report would count that one hour of activity as two hours of “media time,” without distinguishing simultaneous media use from sequential media use.

The author of the report, Vicky Rideout of VJR Consulting, was careful to point out the media-time methodology in her presentations of the report and in an interview with Education Week. She also noted that not all “media time” is created equal, as having television on in the background while eating breakfast or getting dressed is counted the same as an all-engrossing session spent playing World of Warcraft.

Rideout said there would be no way to do a more a more precise calculation of the varying natures of media consumption and simultaneous media use short of utilizing much more ambitious and expensive methods such as “time-use diaries” that record activity continuously throughout the day.

The study also found that teens spend an additional average of 46 minutes per day consuming media for homework, while tweens spend an average of only 15 minutes per day on homework-related media.

In addition, the study revealed that many teens multitask with media while doing homework. According to the survey, 76 percent of teens listen to music, 60 percent text and 51 percent watch television “sometimes or often” while doing homework.

Chart: Common Sense Media

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