Technology is widely, deeply, and tightly woven into our everyday lives. Our children are considered ‘digital natives’ because they have never known a world without digital technology. A striking difference between past and present generations is our children no longer use less sophisticated or toy versions of technology tools and devices, but the same ones as adults. Just think about how often you see kids using computers, tablets, and cellphones! The view that technology use by children is bad or good is a false dichotomy, because technology in and of itself is not good or bad, but rather, it is how it is used that can determine positive or negative outcomes for our children. That said, technology is one thing and that is powerful.
To reject all technology for children is unrealistic because of how present it is in our daily existence, as well as the potential it holds for benefitting children’s lives. Yet to allow unrestricted and unmonitored access and use is unwise, as there is a definite potential for risk, particularly when technology is used to access media. Many parents observe their children using technology and see a level of comfort that often leads them to assume children are also competent and wise consumers. However, the evidence is quite clear this is often not the case. As with any other activity the use of technology and media access by children and adolescents requires careful and consistent attention from parents. Just like most adults, children and teens are strongly drawn to technology and media. Dealing with this issue is a moving target, as new technologies—such as the growing number of mobile devices, the now millions of apps, and the relentless push of the media to get attention and to sell to youth—all come together to represent a persistent and often tricky parenting challenge.
In this article, using comprehensive studies as well as conclusions from extensive literature reviews, I’m going to set the stage, by sharing in broad strokes what we know currently about how much time kids spend with technology and media, then present findings from research which highlights both the positive and negative sides of technology and media use by children, and conclude with guiding tips for you.
How Much U.S. Children and Adolescents Use Technology and Media
Surveying over 1400 parents in 2013, Common Sense Media found children ages 8 and under spent on average just under 2 hours a day with screens. Three-quarters had access to a mobile device such as a smartphone or tablet. This begins very early with almost forty percent under age 2 having used such a device to play games, use apps, and watch videos. TV is still the most common activity for kids 8 and under, making up half of screen time, and parents report much of this is educational media. For the remaining time, many children are also being read to or reading themselves and listening to music, as well as using apps and playing video games. To see the trend in use, children under age 1 are exposed to digital media one hour a day, children ages 2 to 4 are at 2 hours daily, and children ages 4 to 8 about 2 ½ hours each day.
In a survey of over 2600 youth in 2015, Common Sense Media found tweens (ages 8 to 12) on average used entertainment media 6 hours every day (this does not include educational media for school or homework) watching TV, movies, and videos; using social media and internet; reading on electronic devices; and listening to music. Breaking out screen media, the amount of time within the 6 hours is 4 ½ hours daily. Teens (ages 13 to 18) used entertainment media 9 hours every day, with 6 ½ of those hours screen media.
For both tweens and teens, TV still tops the chart for the main screen activity, and many are watching more on mobile devices than a traditional TV set. With regard to other activities, there are distinct gender differences with boys far preferring video games compared to girls, while more girls listen to music, use social media, and read on devices than do boys. You may be picking up that much of this is considered passive consumption, and this indeed makes up the largest type at about forty percent, followed by about a quarter for interactive and communication, and just three percent for creating content such as writing or making digital art or music. There is also a lot of multitasking with media; while doing homework, half of teens are watching TV or using social media, sixty percent are texting, and three-quarters are listening to music. Most believe this doesn’t impact the quality of their work, either for better or worse, with the exception of listening to music which teens believe helps them when doing homework.
What Parents are Doing and Thinking…
Unfortunately, almost a quarter of parents of young children under 8 often—and forty percent sometimes—let their children watch what they as adults are watching, which means many young children are seeing programs and advertising intended for a more mature audience. While just over half of parents of young children do not feel media is contributing to either more or less time together, a quarter feel they spend less time together as a family due to media. About forty percent report using media to keep their child occupied, while they do chores or run errands, and to keep themselves occupied while out with their children such as at a park or playground.
About half of tweens and three-quarters of teens report their parents have talked with them about the amount of time they can spend using media, and two-thirds of tweens and over eighty percent of teens that their parents have talked specifically about the content. Most do report their parents know a lot or some about what kind of content they access when it comes to the shows they watch and games they play; however, for online activities a quarter of teens, and for social media thirty percent of teens, report their parents know little or nothing about what they are doing.
The Positives of Technology and Media
In the popular press, we often hear less about the benefits for kids of technology and media. Researchers at the University of California interviewed over 800 teens and young adults and conducted over 5000 hours of online observations, making this one of the most extensive studies we have on media use in youth (Ito et al., 2008). They find that being online represents a major environment where kids are coming of age, as they strive for autonomy and identity. Here they are extending their social world in their own community and globally, both personally and philanthropically; self-directing their learning; and finding new ways to communicate, play, and express themselves.
While we learned that many youth use technology and media passively, others use it for creating, including writing, video creation and editing, making visual art and music, game and app development, and additionally to publicize and distribute their work. Access to reliable health information and the use of technology for managing illness are very promising. Using technology and media to connect, create, and learn are all experiences that hone the social and technical skills necessary for participation and success in modern society. Through this, we see the great positive potential for technology and media to benefit our youth.
The Negatives of Technology and Media
The risks inherent in using technology and media can surface quickly, however, for children and adolescents compared to many other activities. In this section, we will look at a number of areas, including exposure to inappropriate content, cyberbullying, and impacts on health.
Common Sense Media’s 2013 literature review on violence finds that ninety percent of movies, sixty eight percent of video games, sixty percent of television shows, and forty percent of ads in children’s programming have depictions of violence, ranging from “slapstick to gruesome, occasional to nearly constant.” Videogames are especially replete with violence. When a child plays a violent video game he/she experiences an average of 138 aggressive exchanges in a typical period. Children are seeing violent R-rated films as well, with 1 in 4 kids, ages 10 to 14, reporting they’d seen extremely violent movies in the year’s box office hits. It is, however, risky to attribute exposure to media violence to youth exhibiting more violence, as one must take into account other risk factors such as exposure to family violence or genetics. Nonetheless, as parents, we must reflect on how we feel about our children seeing so much violence.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, in looking at social media risk in particular, frames these in four areas: peer-to-peer; inappropriate content; not understanding online privacy; and advertising (O’Keeffe & Clarke-Pearson, 2011). Peer-to-peer risk is most salient with online or cyberbullying. The Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard (Levy et al., 2012) found the key elements of causing harm are the same as with traditional bullying, but with cyberbullying, the perpetrator can be anonymous, and the threat can be heightened. However, at least half of victims know the identity of their cyberbully. Cyberbullying can occur over time by continually sending emails and texts, or one time by posting a photo or video which keeps causing harm as it is redistributed. Cyberbullying is most common in high school, but researchers have a bit of a difficult time determining prevalence, as victims feel ashamed and bullies don’t want to get caught, so both underreport. However, most youth report they have witnessed or know of online harassment of peers.
In addition to the vast majority of tweens and teens reporting they have inadvertently come across pornography when accessing media, another area of concern is the rise in sexting. This is sending, receiving, or forwarding messages or images that are sexually explicit, and which very often get distributed quickly. Approximately 20% or 1 in 5 teens have sent or posted photographs or videos of themselves nude or seminude. Teens can be charged with crimes and suspended from school, in addition to the emotional distress they endure. Children and adolescents are often unaware they are leaving a digital footprint, which can jeopardize college admission and job selection. Perhaps, even more alarming, teens exposed to media heavy with sexuality are more likely to engage in such behaviors earlier.
There are also health risks such as increased obesity and sleep disruption. In a study of over 3000 upper elementary age children, two-thirds of parents reported their child had an electronic entertainment and communication device such as TV, smartphone, computer, or videogame in their bedroom (Chahal et al., 2013). Having this access and using these devices at night was significantly associated with children sleeping less, having excess body weight, poorer diet, and lower physical activity. Devices that emit blue light have been found to disrupt the circadian rhythm, and kids who are plugged in for long periods of time, or are unsupervised when they do so, tend to eat more in general and of a lower quality in the form of high sugar and high carb snacks, which is significantly correlated with viewing ads for these snacks.
I’ve covered some of the risks that are indeed considered major, but there are others that are less obvious, and these include poor academic performance when long hours are spent with technology and media, as well as a sense of anxiety when having to be unplugged that clinicians are finding for some youth. For younger children, using technology and media can reduce time with parents, caregivers, and peers, which can have negative impacts on their development in all domains from physical to cognitive to social-emotional. Developing children absolutely must have abundant face-to-face communication for developing secure attachments and relationships, and they need real-world physical stimulation for their bodies and minds to grow.
Tips for Helping Kids Use Technology and Media Wisely
Beware of the “third-person effect.” This is the belief that media influences everyone else except you or your children. Don’t fall into this trap. The media influences all of us. To learn how to be a better user/consumer of technology and media, a good place to begin is taking a course with your family on internet safety.
Monitor. Make it a regular practice to know what your kids are doing when they use technology and what media they are accessing. If you aren’t familiar with a show, movie, music, app, game, website, social media site, etc., make it a point to research it. A great place for reliable reviews is Common Sense Media.
Participate. Don’t always treat it like you’re checking up on them; instead, also participate. This could be watching a show together, playing a game online, or viewing a video they made with their friends. When a text comes through, ask your child who it is and then kindly ask how that person is doing. Kids will share more with you when they see you’re really interested and invested.
Create. Encourage your children and teens to create more and consume less. Apps are a great venue for this. Kids can create a myriad of wonderful things with them and can even develop and build their own. Don’t forget too about “simple” technologies such as cameras and tape recorders, which are powerful tools for creating.
Set Limits. In today’s plugged-in world it’s sometimes hard to do this, but just as you set limits on other activities, it’s okay and important to do so for technology and media. Setting limits is about the amount of time spent with technology and the content of the media your kids are accessing. When having an important conversation, insist technology use stops and eye contact starts. Make homework time screen-free time, and have a household rule that screens go off at least an hour before bedtime.
Be a Good Role Model. If you refrain from constantly checking social media sites, texting while driving, keeping the TV on, even when no one is watching, etc., you will have more credibility when you expect the same from your children. One area that is becoming a real concern is parents allowing children under 13 to have profiles and access sites where this is the minimum age. Not only does this send a poor message, but it undermines the reason for this age limit, and this is that sites for children under 13 are restricted from allowing mature content.
When I read the research, I admit I often feel alarmed, but I also don’t want to react too rashly because I know technology is here to stay. I will definitely remain on guard, but when my tween daughter brings me her smartphone to show me the funny pet video she made, I will also definitely make time to watch and be just as supportive as when she creates a spreadsheet for her science project data. From times like these, I’ve gotten good feelings about her using technology. In our plugged-in world, these are the moments that all of us as parents have the opportunity to experience with our kids, so I encourage you to make, find, and enjoy them!
Rideout, V. J. (2013). Zero to Eight: Children’s Media Use in America 2013: A Common Sense Media Research Study.
Rideout, V. J. (2015). The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tween and Teens.
Ito, M., Horst, H., Bittanti, M., et al. (2008). Living and Learning with New Media: Summary of Findings from the Digital Youth Project. John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Common Sense Media. (2013). Media and Violence: An Analysis of Current Research.
O'Keeffe, G. S., & Clarke-Pearson, K. (2011). The impact of social media on children, adolescents, and families. Pediatrics, 127(4), 800-804.
Levy, N., Cortesi, S., Gasser, U., et al. (2012). Bullying in a networked era: A literature review. Berkman Center Research Publication, 2012-2017.
Chahal, H., Fung, C., Kuhle, S., & Veugelers, P. J. (2013). Availability and night‐time use of electronic entertainment and communication devices are associated with short sleep duration and obesity among Canadian children. Pediatric Obesity, 8(1), 42-51.
Lilla Dale McManis, M.Ed., Ph.D., uses her training and experience as a psychologist, child developmentalist, educator, and parent to promote positive child outcomes through informed and effective parenting. Dr. McManis is President & CEO of Parent in the Know, a parenting-role and child social-emotional assessment and reporting service. She believes strongly in translating parenting research into meaningful practice. Read more about Dr. McManis at her website.
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