Quality Matters: Defining Developmentally Appropriate Media Use for Young Children


3.16.11 | Media use among very young children is on the rise according to a new report from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and Sesame Workshop that provides a much-needed summary of the limited research on young children’s media consumption.

Data in this area is hard to come by, especially when the technology is changing so rapidly. And good guidance on what is appropriate media use for our children is even harder to obtain.

Always Connected: The New Digital Media Habits of Young Children” summarizes data from seven studies on the media habits of children from birth to 11 and finds that young children, like the rest of us, spend their days surrounded by media.  The study defines media as both digital and analog, including television, books, electronic learning toys, video games (both console and handheld), mobile media, cell phones, music players, internet use and computers.

When adults are talking to children about what they’ve seen, what they’ve heard and children get assistance in their ability to process it, that’s when it’s the most valuable.

– Roberta Schomburg, associate dean of education, Carlow University

Despite an increase in gaming and mobile media, young children still spend the most time watching television. Among toddlers and preschoolers, for example, more than 80 percent watch TV on a given day. Nearly one-half of all media use is television viewing.

But kids are online, too, and using newer media technologies like handheld devices and portable music players. They are also multitasking—using more than one media at a time.

Use of the internet and newer technologies varies significantly by age. Not surprisingly, kids are using these devices in greater numbers as they get older. The report finds that about 20 percent of 4 and 5-year-olds, for example, use handheld video games, and by age 7, usage in that age group more than doubles to 46 percent.

Children are also using the internet for longer periods of time than in 2006.  Between 2006 and 2009, for example, the amount of time 8 to 10 year olds spent on the internet each day jumped from 19 to 46 minutes.

And for all the talk about the death of the book, most young kids today are still reading actual books. The report finds about 90 percent of kids ages 5 to 9 are reading books most days of the week for about an hour a day.

The report also finds that low-income and Hispanic and African-American children use far more media than children who are middle class or white. White youth ages 8 to 18 spent approximately 8.5 hours a day using media in 2009, while black and Hispanic youth spent 13 hours. And yet, because they are less likely to have adult guidance online, the more active users “spend more time on lower-quality Web sites or activities that won’t help them develop school- based skills.” The differences are similar for income levels; children from families with higher incomes spend less “screen time” than those from middle and lower income families.

The study did not examine parents’ participation alongside their children, and experts worry that unsupervised media exposure at young ages is potentially harmful to development. “Most parents don’t understand the need for their participation,” said Gwenn O’Keeffe, a pediatrician who specializes in children’s media use. “It’s a small population who do get it.”

The authors of the Cooney report say parents are making media choices through “both intentional and incidental acts of childrearing: purchases, scheduling, household-space arrangements, supervision, rule setting, and so on.”

Parents, as Tina Barseghian notes in a recent post at MindShift, too often find themselves stuck between arguments about the opportunities technology offers for learning, its convenience in keeping young children quiet, and very real concerns about the potential perils—lack of physical activity, commercialism, and age-inappropriate content.

Experts such as O’Keefe say parents need help understanding that using media with their children—like playing games, using apps and navigating websites together—is what often makes the difference in creating an engaging learning experience, especially for younger children.

“It’s a tool in the context of learning relationships, and if you don’t have the relationship its not all that valuable,” said Roberta Schomburg, associate dean of education at Carlow University.  “When adults are talking to children about what they’ve seen, what they’ve heard and children get assistance in their ability to process it, that’s when it’s the most valuable. It’s through the mediations that children can process it.”

Help for parents is on the way. Schomburg is part of collaboration between National Association for the Education of Young Children and the Fred Rogers Center to create a position statement, expected this fall, on best practices for technology, media and early childhood.  They are also creating a framework for quality in digital children’s media.

Researchers are focusing on giving guidance to families and early childhood professionals on what developmentally appropriate media use looks like and how to determine quality media tools.

“The statement should really frame the issue in a much larger way and get away from just a focus on the concerns about technology, which are valid concerns,” Shomburg told Spotlight. “We want people to know we can make good choices, if we have guidelines.”

In addition, the Cooney Center report calls for further research into the context in which kids are using digital media and the role of families in providing access: “Raising parents’ awareness of their own roles may be the simplest way to bring a healthier balance to children’s media practices.”

Stay tuned to Spotlight for more in-depth coverage of media use in early childhood in the coming weeks.

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