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Always Connected: The New Digital Media Habits of Young Children

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Author: 
Aviva Lucas Gutnick
Michael Robb
Lori Takeuchi
Jennifer Kotler

Publication Date

March 1, 2011

"A vigorous national [United States] dialogue is taking place over the right balance between media consumption, the potential negative impact that inappropriate digital content can have on vulnerable children, and the worry that children are increasingly leading physically inactive lives. These legitimate concerns must be juxtaposed with emerging evidence from the learning sciences and innovative practices showing how well-deployed digital media can promote new skills, raise achievement, and bring children together across time and space."

This report by Sesame Workshop and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center takes a look at data emerging from studies undertaken by Sesame Workshop, independent scholars, foundations, and market researchers on the media habits of very young children (ages 0 to 11) in the United States (US). The report reviews 7 recent studies about young children and their ownership and use of media.

As the first chart in the report demonstrates, the media habits of young children have changed over the years as new technology emerges and becomes ever more ingrained within daily lives. For instance, in the 1930s, US children spent about 10 hours per week on mass media, including radio, television, and records. In the 2000s, as a Kaiser Family Foundation study (2010 found, children 8 to 18 years old are exposed to media for 10 hours 45 minutes per day.

Here is a snapshot of the findings, which are described in detail in the text and illustrated by a series of charts:

  • Children have more access to all kinds of digital media and are spending more time during the day with them than ever before.
  • Television continues to exert a strong hold over young children, who spend more time with this medium than any other.
  • Not all children have access to newer digital technologies, nor do all children use media in the same ways once they do own them. Family income continues to be a barrier to some children owning technology, even as the price of devices falls.
  • Lower-income, Hispanic, and African American children consume far more media than their middle-class and white counterparts.
  • Children appear to shift their digital media habits around age 8, when they increasingly open their eyes to the wide world of media beyond television.
  • Mobile media appears to be the next "it" technology - from handheld video games to portable music players to cell phones.

Recommendations based on these findings include:

  1. Parents need guidance on "providing a balanced media diet" - The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under age 2 avoid watching any television at all, and parents should limit the viewing time of older children to no more than 2 hours a day. According to the report, many parents are not aware of (or, if they are, choose to ignore) these recommendations for various reasons. Other sources of information for parents are provided on page 38 of the report, but it is noted here that more needs to be established in the way of rigorous, research-based guidelines.
  2. Explore opportunities for intergenerational engagement with digital media - "...print and TV provide established opportunities for parents and children to learn together, whereas most widely used digital media was not necessarily designed to support shared interaction. What if video-game play and other mobile media such as smart phones were intentionally designed for intergenerational play?"
  3. Bridge home, school, and community with digital media - A New York City (US) pilot programme for middle-school children called School of One, for example, uses a combination of learning situations, including computers with online tutors, to tailor math lessons to individual students' learning styles. Children are given laptops for the year and use them to complete assignments both at home and in school.
  4. Pursue future research in these areas: media multitasking, perceived value of media, the role of families, co-participation, and cultural differences.

As noted in the report, "[m]edia platforms by themselves are neutral; what matters most are the choices made by parents, educators, educational production companies, and other content providers in order to encourage a balanced pattern of consumption. As we see it, the figures in this report provide strong evidence that children's media habits are, in fact, out of balance. In the final analysis, we need higher-quality educational offerings to promote critical thinking for children and adults in their selection and use of media."

Source: 

Joan Ganz Cooney Center website, September 6 2012.

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