Victoria J. Rideout
Publication Date
January 24, 2014

A nationally representative online survey of more than 1,500 parents of children age 2 to 10 in the United States (US) released by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop found that, although children's media use soars as they approach school age, the amount of time that they spend with educational media plummets. Researchers defined educational media for parents who took this survey as content that "is good for your child's learning or growth, or that teaches some type of lesson, such as an academic or social skill."

Conducted in Summer 2013, the survey sought to document the extent to which families are using educational media tools, how they use them, the benefits parents perceive from informal educational media use, the obstacles to increased use of educational media tools, how we can enhance joint engagement with media, and how these issues vary by factors such as child age, socio-economic status, and family structure. The report measures the degree to which children and parents use media together, overall and by platform, and looks at how this joint media engagement changes as children get older. The study also examines children's reading behaviours, especially online or on electronic reading devices. All of these issues are explored by age, gender, race/ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.

Key findings include:

  • Nearly half (44%) of the screen media 2- to 10-year-olds use is considered educational by their parents (56 minutes out of a total of 2:07 screen media per day). Eight in ten children (80%) use educational media at least once a week, including 34% who are daily users.
  • Most parents think that their child has learned from educational media. Among parents of weekly educational media users: More than half (57%) say their child has learned "a lot" about one or more subject areas (e.g., reading/vocabulary, math, or cognitive skills) from educational media. Fifty-four percent say their child "often" takes specific actions as a result of their exposure to educational media, such as talking about something they saw (38%), engaging in imaginative play based on it (34%), asking questions about it (26%), or asking to do a project or activity inspired by it (18%).
  • Educational media use occurs most frequently among very young children (1:16 a day among 2- to 4-year-olds), with a large drop-off in use as children get older (:50 a day among 5- to 7-year-olds, and :42 a day among 8- to 10-year-olds). As children get older, the amount of time they spend with screen media goes up (from 1:37 to 2:36 a day), and the proportion that is educational goes down (from 78% to 27%).
  • Children spend far more time with educational TV (an average of :42 a day) than they do with educational content on other platforms such as mobile devices (:05), computers (:05), or video games (:03). For every subject except math, parents are more likely to say their child has learned a lot about the subject from educational television as opposed to any other platform. Educational content on mobile devices was ranked lowest in learning by parents in every subject area.
  • Parents do not believe that their children learn as much about science from educational media as the children may have learned about other subject areas. Nineteen percent of parents say their child has learned "a lot" about science from an educational media platform, compared to 37% for reading and cognitive skills development and 28% for math.
  • Across every platform and almost all subject areas studied, Hispanic-Latino parents are the least likely to say their child has learned from educational media. For example, among Hispanic-Latino parents of weekly educational media users, 63% say their child has learned a lot or some about math from computers, compared to 91% of Black and 79% of White parents.
  • Nearly two-thirds (62%) of 2- to 10-year-olds now have access to either an e-reader or a tablet device. However, only half (49%) of all children with access to such a device have read or been read to on it. On average, children now spend :05 a day with e-books, compared to :29 a day reading in print. Young children (2- to 4-year-olds) with e-platforms in the home are just as likely as older children (8- to 10-year-olds) to have used them (49% and 53% respectively, not a statistically significant difference.)

Going forward, suggestions included in the conclusion section of the report are:

  • Compare parents' opinions to independent assessments of the educational value of children's media - Time-use diaries could be used to record exactly which shows, games, and apps children are using, and an independent organisation could code the content for its educational value.
  • Provide parents with more information about educational media - "The data from this and other studies should be examined to develop a profile of the parents who may be in most need of tools for assessing the educational value of children's media [e.g., lower income and minority families]; outreach plans should then be developed with those parents in mind."
  • Meet the needs of older children - Ask questions such as these: Is screen media use in early childhood, even if educational, creating a habituation with media that then becomes part of the child's and the family's lifestyle? Does it lead to greater screen use - of which less is educational - later in life? If so, how do we weigh the effects of that larger amount of non-educational use against the benefits achieved from early educational media use?
  • Improve access and content for low-income youth - "One option is to redouble efforts to expand access to smartphones and tablets. But before we undertake such an effort in the name of equity, we need to be sure to think through the ultimate effect on how children spend their time. Is the primary effect of greater access likely to be more educational or more noneducational screen time? If the latter, do the benefits outweigh any risks? In the meantime, it would behoove us to serve lower-income children by continuing to create as much engaging, educational content as possible for the platform that is omnipresent (TV) and free (over-the-air broadcast)."
  • Continue to develop better mobile content - "More exploration should be done to determine why parents don't think their children have learned as much from mobile devices as they have from TV and other platforms."
  • Explore the need for more science-oriented media, especially for girls - "An inventory of science-related educational media products may be a useful tool in helping to assess whether there are sufficient titles available, and a qualitative review would help indicate whether existing products are oriented toward one gender or the other (perhaps by channel placement, hosts, main characters, or other variables)."
  • Seek to better understand the needs of Hispanic-Latino families - Across every platform and almost all subject areas studied, Hispanic-Latino parents are less likely than Black or White parents to say their child has learned from educational media. "Several possibilities are worth exploring in future research. It may be that there is a shortage of effective educational media content specifically designed for Hispanic-Latino children."
  • Continue to produce high-quality children's books that appeal to both boys and girls, in print and electronic formats.
  • Encourage high-quality joint media engagement (JME) - "This study indicates that there is a lot of JME occurring already. But what we don't know is what the quality of that engagement is - how effectively and intentionally are parents engaging their children when they use media together? Are they using primarily educational or entertainment media together? How much and what kind of interaction occurs during joint media use?"

The report was conducted with the support of the Bezos Family Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, AARP, and the LIFE Center as part of the Families and Media Project.

Click here for the 55-page report in PDF format.

The following links offer additional details about the report:


Emails from Michael Levine and June Lee to The Communication Initiative on January 27 2014 and January 29 2014, respectively; and "Learning at Home: Can Educational Media Jump-Start Learning in America?", by Michael H. Levine, Ph.D., January 24 2014. Image credit: J Pat Carter/Associated Press