Young Children Are Spending Much More Time In Front Of Small Screens

Oct 19, 2017
Originally published on October 19, 2017 10:31 am

It's not your imagination: Tiny tots are spending dramatically more time with tiny screens.

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization, just released new numbers on media use by children 8 and under. The nationally representative parent survey found that 98 percent of homes with children now have a mobile device such as a tablet or smartphone.

That's a huge leap from 52 percent just six years ago. Mobile devices are now just as common as televisions in family homes.

And the average amount of time our smallest children spend with those handheld devices each day is skyrocketing, too: from five minutes a day in 2011, to 15 minutes a day in 2013, to 48 minutes a day in 2017.

James Steyer, CEO and founder of Common Sense Media, calls this "a seismic shift" that is "fundamentally redefining childhood experiences" with "enormous implications we have just begun to understand."

Other eye-grabbing highlights from the survey:

  • 42 percent of young children now have their very own tablet device — up from 7 percent four years ago and less than 1 percent in 2011.
  • Screen media use among infants under 2 appears to be trending downward, from 58 minutes a day in 2013 to 42 minutes in 2017. This decline correlates with a drop in sales of DVDs, and particularly those marketed at babies, such as Baby Einstein. Updated pediatricians' recommendations released last year call for limited, but not banned, screen use among the youngest set.
  • Nearly half, 49 percent, of children 8 or under "often or sometimes" use screens in the hour before bedtime, which experts say is bad for sleep habits.
  • 42 percent of parents say the TV is on "always" or "most of the time" in their home, whether anyone is watching or not. Research has shown this so-called "background TV" reduces parent-child interaction, which in turn can hurt language development.

The growth of mobile is a dramatic change. But other aspects of kids' media use have been more stable over time, this periodic census reveals.

When you take every source of screen media together, children 8 and under spend an average of about 2 1/4 hours (2:19) a day, a figure that's flat from 2011 (2:16). That implies mobile is apparently cannibalizing, not adding on to, the boob tube and other types of media.

And, whether young kids are looking at small screens or big ones, most often they are passively watching videos, not using interactive apps. Video watching has dominated children's media use for decades.

Finally, young children are still being read to by their parents about 30 minutes a day.

More questions than answers

What does all this mean?

Researchers don't really know, and that concerns observers like Pamela Hurst-Della Pietra, the founder of Children and Screens: The Institute of Digital Media and Child Development.

"How different is the brain of a child who's never known anything but sustained digital media exposure to the brain of her parents, or even older siblings?" she asks. "And what are the implications for parents, educators or policymakers?"

Hurst-Della Pietra says these are questions "we're only beginning to ask, let alone answer." Children and Screens is getting ready to release its own series of reports that sets an agenda for future research.

Steyer, of Common Sense Media, agrees. "I would argue there are big implications for brain and social-emotional development, many of which we don't know the answer to," he says.

The public conversation about kids and screens is somewhat schizophrenic. American schools, even preschools, are buying millions of electronic devices, and there are tens of thousands of apps meant to enhance learning for even the smallest babies.

On the other hand, doctors warn, and parents worry, about negative effects from too much screen time, ranging from obesity to anxiety.

One part of the Common Sense report that really plays up this contradiction is the section on the so-called digital divide. The phrase reflects the idea that learning how to use computers and the Internet at home helps kids get ahead in school and in life.

Unlike in previous years, this census shows both rich and poor families now appear to have nearly equal access to smartphones. At the same time, kids from lower-income families are spending twice as much time with screens daily as those from the most advantaged families. Is this a boon or a danger?

Lynn Schofield Clark at the University of Denver studies media use with a focus on disadvantaged youth and youth of color. She says the missing ingredient in understanding the real impact of the digital divide is time.

That is, parenting time: showing a kid how to use a laptop, how to do Internet research, picking out highly rated educational apps or steering a child toward programs with positive messages.

"People who have more advantages have more time and education to help their kids use the technology," she explains. "We have set up a society where it's structurally very difficult for families to spend time together."

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We have some insight this morning into just how much time kids are spending with their eyes locked on the screen of a mobile device. We're not talking about teenagers. The nonprofit Common Sense Media studied children under 8, including infants, and found that these very young kids, even kids in strollers, are spending an average of 48 minutes per day with a mobile device, 48 minutes per day. Anya Kamenetz of NPR's Ed team says that is a bigger and bigger slice for the two hours per day that kids spend in front of all kinds of screens.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: The percentage of that time that's spent with the small devices, the mobile smartphones and tablets, that is what's really going up here. And it's displacing, apparently, other forms of electronic media use.

INSKEEP: So more and more kids have access to smartphones, and so they're spending less time watching "Sesame Street" or Sprout or whatever, and they're looking at a YouTube video or, I don't know, texting their friends at age 1 and a half.

KAMENETZ: We should be careful to say that they - you know, they appear to be doing some of the same things on the small screens. And, as you mentioned, I mean, it may be moving from watching entire episodes on PBS or whatever on television to the YouTube way of watching, where it's streaming and it's clips and it's things on demand. My cousin's son, at the age of 3 was really, really interested in watching YouTube videos of other kids unwrapping toys. (Laughter) So there's new forms of media that kids are engaging with, and they're engaging with it in new ways.

INSKEEP: That must be very suspenseful, actually. Like, what's going to be - what's going to be in that box when it gets opened up?

KAMENETZ: The amount of, you know, compelling material that's out there - if you love trucks, you can just watch garbage trucks. If you love birds, you can just see birds. I mean, kids are really getting to geek out in a way with their interests. And it - I mean, it's fascinating to see, but I think it also has experts a little bit alarmed, as well.

INSKEEP: OK. So why would you be alarmed because kids are moving from this passive experience of watching television to a more active experience where they might be thinking and choosing?

KAMENETZ: Well, you know, some of the questions that experts are asking, the research really hasn't been done. You know, are the small screens more addictive somehow? Is the fact that they're interactive, is that so rewarding to young brains, or does it overstimulate? The fact that we can take these devices everywhere all the time. You know, you see so many parents who are giving their kids mobile devices even when they're out and about. Other types of interactions where they're outside the house - they might be learning, they might be talking with their families - instead, they're on the phones. And that's something that does have some researchers, some pediatricians, worried.

INSKEEP: When you look at different kinds of kids, do the numbers change?

KAMENETZ: That's a really important question. We see consistently that there is a lot more screen time happening amongst families with lower incomes, and that's true in this survey as well. That's an outcome of a lot of different factors. You know, it might be - have to do with education. It might also have to do with access to high-quality paid care, access to toys and other things to occupy your kids, where some families might live in neighborhoods where they don't have backyards or safe places to play and, therefore, they're turning to the television more often.

INSKEEP: OK, one more thing - could it actually be good here for parents if the kid wrestles the phone away from the parent to use it because then finally the parent will get away from the phone that they're addicted to?

KAMENETZ: (Laughter) You know, the more I look at screen time, Steve, the more I realize that it's not just about kids and screens. It definitely is about parents and kids and screens. And so we are their role models, and they are watching us. And when we have our devices in our hands all the time, even a tiny infant sees that and wants to copy that. And so as much as we're, you know, keeping an eye on kids' use, I think - you know, definitely it starts with you.

INSKEEP: Hey, Anya. Thanks very much. I know you got to get back and check Twitter but appreciate the conversation.

KAMENETZ: I sure do. OK.

INSKEEP: NPR's Anya Kamenetz of the Ed team.

KAMENETZ: Bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.