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Young Kids and the Popularity of Digital 'Portability'

Published:  March 24, 2011
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Photo reprinted with permission by Flickr user Sean Dreilinger under Creative Commons license.

"Media is a major presence in the everyday lives of young children.”

Those are the words on the first page of a new study, Always Connected: The New Digital Media Habits of Young Children. The report, published by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, shows that young children are consuming an increasing amount of media -- and they are consuming it on the go.

“The popularity of portability,” as the report calls it, is apparent in the use of handheld gaming devices and mp3 players, both of which are used more frequently  by children as they get older. By age 7, the report says, 46 percent of children use handheld video games, and by age 9, the majority do.

Among children from birth to age 5, more than 80 percent are watching TV, more than 60 percent are watching videos and more than 20 percent are using the Internet and mp3 players on a typical day. Print media still holds a strong place in their lives too:  More than 60 percent are reading books. The numbers come from a 2009 Sesame Street Media Utilization Study and had not been widely available until now.

The Always Connected report, which focused on kids ages 0 to 11, also shows that television remains a major influence, digital divides still exist, and media habits shift for children around age 8, when they are starting to form stronger relationships outside the family.

The report didn’t make any value judgments, nor did it attempt to provide any answers about why today’s children, at younger and younger ages, are becoming so immersed in digital media.

There are many avenues to take in answering that “why” question and surely many divergent and overlapping answers, both troubling and inspiring. Researchers could, and should, have a field day trying to answer this, given that digital media – if used well – could hold the keys to opening up new learning opportunities for children everywhere. (As a parent of two daughters with iPods that my husband and I gave them in first grade, I can predict at least one finding: Parents have something to do with it.)

Equally important, researchers should study what the children themselves get out of the technologies they use. What do they see as the value?

A few years ago, Allison Druin, an associate professor of information studies at the University of Maryland, brought together more than a dozen contributors to write a book on children and mobile technologies. Mobile Technology for Children: Designing for Interaction and Learning was published in 2009. 

I was fortunate to be able to contribute a chapter based on a project that immersed me in the everyday habits of elementary and middle school children who used mobile devices. Throughout the summer of 2008, I conducted in-depth interviews with a snowball sample of racially and socio-economically diverse children in Northern Virginia. I spent hours in individual conferences with 22 kids, ages 5 to 12, who used portable gaming devices, video players, music players and cell phones. Between them, they owned, or regularly used, more than 40 different gadgets.

The title of the chapter is “It’s Mine: Kids Carrying Their Culture Wherever They Go.” Here’s an excerpt:

What I discovered was children’s strong sense of ownership and control over the technology. They stores their devices in areas dedicated to their most important belongings, even under their pillows. They took the time to decorate and personalize them. And when they used them, they felt empowered. By having a device in their hands, where adults were less apt to insert themselves, children could make independent choices about what to do with their time – what game were worth playing, which characters deserved a laugh, what songs were allowed to play over and over in their heads.

This little anthropology project was limited in scope, so I didn’t collect any objective data on how much of the children’s day was devoted to their devices or how these kids were doing in school. These are critical missing data points. It’s time to ramp up the level of research nationally and across multiple age groups of children to learn more about how to harness the power of these technologies while mitigating the problems that may come with them.

A stronger federal investment in such research is one of the recommendations in the Early Education Initiative’s latest issue brief, “12 Ideas for Early Education in the 112th Congress.”  The release of the Always Connected report and its statistics on rapid consumption add yet another reason to increase the study of how these technologies are affecting kids and their success in school.

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