More than 95% of US households own a smartphone. If that makes you shrug, this will not: daily mobile media usage among kids under eight is nearly 10 times higher than it was in 2011, according to Common Sense’s most recent kids’ media usage survey.
“There’s a been a seismic shift in kids’ media use to mobile,” said Jim Steyer, CEO of Common Sense, a nonprofit organization that reviews and rates media. “These devices are shaping everything. This has profound implications for families everywhere, from how we relate to each other and communicate with each other, to our kids’ social-emotional and cognitive development, our inability to pay attention to each other and our addiction to these devices.”
This is not as bleak as it may seem. Overall, screen time is roughly the same as it was in 2011, with kids spending about two hours and 19 minutes a day with some form of electronic media.
That’s still way too much, and the report—Common Sense’s third since 2011—shows some dramatic changes in how kids engage with media. About 42% of kids age eight and under now own their own tablet, compared to less than 1% in 2011. What’s more, about 10% of kids have a “smart” toy that connects to the internet and 9% have a voice-activated virtual assistant device available to them in the home, such as an Amazon Echo or Google Home.
Screens cause parents endless angst: kids want them, and we think they shouldn’t have them, even though we are addicted ourselves, and know that there is good stuff for kids out there if we found the the time to curate it. “It ends up producing such a vague anxiety for parents—they don’t know quite whats wrong with media but they’ve been told there’s something wrong with it,” said Sara DeWitt, vice president of PBS KIDS Digital (who was not involved in the report).
Many of us tell ourselves its just an updated version of an age-old debate: first it was TV that would turn our kids’ brains to mush, then video games, and now smartphones. Common Sense’s Steyer says this argument doesn’t hold up.
“This is not the same as TV,” he said. “This is a massively powerful computer with a phone and camera attached to it, in your pocket.” In other words, it is always with us, eager to occupy our attention, increase our levels of distraction, and potentially become a source of addiction.
Because of the ubiquity of devices, the shift to mobile feels unremarkable; iPod to iPhone, tablet to smartphone. But mobile consumption is different, says Jenny Radesky, an assistant professor of pediatrics at University of Michigan who authored the 2016 American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement, Media and Young Minds. “Mobile device use is more individual, immersive, and on-demand, and it influences interpersonal dynamics differently and can be harder to break yourself (or your child) away from,” she wrote in the report. She said parents constantly describe it as more difficult to manage than other devices.
What’s a parent to do?
Media experts usually recommend two things: know what your child is engaging with, and set limits. DeWitt, from PBS KIDS, argues that there is content that helps develop everything from math skills and vocabulary to social and emotional intelligence. “Screens are part of their lives, let’s make it as active and positive as we possibly can,” she said.
She encourages parents to differentiate between the technology itself and the content on it: know what your kids are watching, or playing, and find substantive ways to interact with them about it. Ask them to show you how they won a game, or what strategy they used to move to a new level. Ask about the stories they watched and how the characters solved their problems. And make it part of a balanced diet of activities, with reading and playing both outside and inside.
The Common Sense report is based on a nationally representative, probability-based online survey of 1,454 parents of children age 8 or under, conducted from Jan. 20, 2017, to Feb. 10, 2017.
It identified some other notable trends. More families with young kids are now have a subscription video service such as Netflix or Hulu—72%—than have cable TV (65%). And much to the chagrin of pediatricians, 49% of children age 8 or under often or sometimes watch TV, videos, or play video games in the hour before bedtime (doctors recommend no screens before bedtime to promote sleep).
There was good news, too: kids are still reading, or being read to, about half an hour a day, and e-books seems to hold little appeal (of the 29 minutes children spend reading each day, 26 are in print). But there is a vast income divide: 40% of lower-income children read or are read to every day, compared with 65% of children from higher-income families.
To get kids—and parents—off screens, Radesky says parents and doctors need help from industry to embed features such as bedtime Wi-Fi shutoffs or filters that only allow relaxation apps before bed. Until that happens, Common Sense will use $50 million in donated advertising dollars to continue its #DeviceFreeDinner campaign, encouraging families to go screen-free at dinner.