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A Blog from New America's Early Education Initiative

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Parental Worries, Or the Lack Thereof, About Digital Media

Published:  July 19, 2011

Even though more children than ever have access to digital media and they are consuming it at increasing rates, only 18 percent of parents believe their own kids are at risk of spending too much time with media, according to a recent report by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop.

Yet at the same time 59 percent of parents said they agreed with the statement, “I try to limit the time my child spends with technology because I believe it prevents my child from getting physical activity or exercise.”

These contradictory responses are among several ambivalent attitudes toward digital media captured in Families Matter: Designing Media for a Digital Age, one of the first large-scale studies to explore the ideas parents have about their young children’s use and access of media.  The report, written by Lori M. Takeuchi, director of research at the Cooney Center, is based in part on an online survey of 810 parents of children ages 3 through 10.  Respondents were recruited through email and online advertising campaigns, which directed respondents to the survey website.  Because the survey was only available to families with Internet access, it is not representative of the US population.

Researchers also conducted four case studies of families living in the Los Angeles area to get a sense of their day-to-day media experience. The case studies offer several insights into how parents desire to maintain some control over when and how their children use a range of digital media, including cell phones and social networking sites, while at the same time providing their kids with the flexibility to communicate through, learn from and play with the new technologies.

The case studies also show that children sometimes hide their media use from their parents --  raising the possibility that the parents in the larger survey, too, are unaware of just how much media their kids are consuming.

The report comes in the wake of relatively new data showing how much time children are spending with digital media. Older children and teenagers – kids ages 8 to 18 – are now spending 7 hours and 38 minutes per day using digital media (including listening to digital music), according to a 2010 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation.  This is over an hour more than the daily intake of six and a half hours that the foundation found in a 2004 survey.  

Among younger children, consumption is lower but grows as children age. Earlier this year, the Cooney Center released an analysis of the media habits of children ages 0 to 11. This report, Always Connected: The New Digital Media Habits of Young Children, indicated that a shift of media use occurs for children between the ages of 7 to 9.  For example, under half of 6-year-olds play video games, but by age 8 this increases to 70 percent of children.  The report also found that as children get older, they do more multitasking, which leads to more time spent with media platforms.  

In addition to showing that parents do not appear to be overly concerned about their own children’s media use, the latest report shows that not all digital media are created equal in parents’ eyes. Most parents interviewed (73 percent) believe that technology in general is important to their children’s success in school, as well as to their future career choices (65 percent).  Parents surveyed in this report rated computer-based activities as most valuable for young children’s learning, but a surprising majority also thinks video games develop skills important to school success. The survey showed that parents view mobile phones as least valuable for learning and the device most prohibited by parents for young children’s use.  

TV still reigns as the device that parents are most likely to use with their children.  In fact 89 percent engage in television watching with their children instead of relying on the newer platforms being developed.  

The majority of parents surveyed do instill regulations of some sort.  Only 7 percent of parents surveyed responded that there are no rules regarding home media use.  Yet most parents elect to instill rules on a “case-by-case” basis, meaning that the limits they set appear to vary depending upon what kinds of games or shows their child is playing or watching, or what types of devices they are using, at certain moments of the day.

Other reports on media and children have hit the news lately, including a sunny report on families’ media use from the consumer perspective and a provocative report on survey data about children, media and race published by Northwestern University’s Center on Media and Human Development. (Watch for coverage of the Northwestern report on our blog later this summer.) 

Meanwhile, people who work in preschools, kindergartens and other early childhood settings continue to try to get a handle on how digital media should or should not be used with young children. The Fred Rogers Center and the American Center for Children and the Media have been hosting roundtable discussions to develop a framework for creating high-quality digital media. The National Association for the Education of Young Children, in conjunction with the Fred Rogers Center, has been reworking its technology position statement.  Here at the Early Education Initiative, we gave a presentation last month on how to “Put the Kids’ Needs First” when choosing to  introduce digital media in the early childhood classroom. And earlier this month, the National Institute of Early Education Research’s blog, Policy Matters, weighed in with a post that pitted “old-fashioned play” against technology,  leading to some back-and-forth comments from readers who agreed with the emphasis on play yet wondered whether it had to be one or the other. 

It’s encouraging to see these robust conversations among early childhood experts about the roles that families and educators are playing as they guide their children to use new technologies.  Given parents’ ambivalence about digital media and its impact on their own children, it is becoming more and more important that we make distinctions between types of media and media platforms, the content and quality of the media that are consumed or created, and the ages of the children who are interacting with it.

Sarah Sweney, our Early Education Initiative intern, contributed to this post.

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