“You can’t just disconnect your kids”

asderknaster, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0
asderknaster, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0

Media researcher Michael Robb talks about the rise of personal devices among children and the importance of raising responsible digital citizens.

Caroline Smrstik Gentner: Your latest survey on media use in the U.S. by kids under 8 shows that one-third of their screen time is now on mobile devices. Should we be worried about pre-schoolers always clutching a smartphone?

Michael Robb: What’s really interesting here is that since the first survey in 2011, the total amount of screen time for kids aged zero to eight hasn’t changed. Television, DVDs, desktop computers, and video games are used less now as handheld devices like smartphones have become more widespread.

CSG:  What explains the rise of mobile media?

MR: Everyone has a mobile device now: it’s considered not a “nice to have”, but a “must have.” Our survey showed 98% of homes have a mobile device, regardless of family income. When you combine the perceived necessity of having a mobile device with the affordability and lower cost of broadband, it’s promising in so many ways because it’s levelled the playing field in terms of access. The “digital divide” in American households is narrowing.

CSG: Why is there higher screen media use in lower-income families? Is this a “babysitter” effect?

MR: I’m not really sure, but I do know that people tend to see this as a problem at first glance. I’m hesitant to put a value statement on this finding. You have to think about what else is in the environment.

“In lower income areas, spending more time could be adaptive, by keeping kids out of what might not be a positive environment outside or because there aren’t other resources for them.”

Children in higher-income families may have more activities outside of school, so they could have less time available for media use. In lower income areas, spending more time could be adaptive, by keeping kids out of what might not be a positive environment outside or because there aren’t other resources for them. And in terms of parental involvement, the percentage of parents who download apps for their children has gone way up in lower income families. There’s a difference of only 6% between higher- and lower-income families, where in 2013 this difference was 38%.

CSG: With the income-based “digital divide” fading, this seems like a great opportunity for early childhood learning across socioeconomic lines. What can you do to promote that?

MR: Now that we’ve built up a good statistical picture with our census every four years, the key for further research is what is qualitatively different. Supporting quality media use is the next horizon. Especially with younger kids– when there used to be a big TV in the room, parents could see what was being watched and what captured their children’s’ attention. Now there’s not as much of a window into what kids are seeing, and the amount of stuff out there is overwhelming.

“Supporting quality media use is the next horizon.”

This is why our organization reviews apps, games, and even YouTube channels. We want to help parents get a view on what’s out there so they can prepare the ground. For our organization, making recommendations is like dropping seeds, and we just hope that some can take root.

CSG: How do you reach people whose digital behavior you want to change?

MR: We have a lot of access points; there’s no silver bullet solution here. With younger kids, we’ve begun doing outreach through pediatricians. Most kids go through the health care system, and when the doctor says something, the parents tend to listen. Librarians can be great media mentors – the public library is a powerful resource. We also have digital citizenship curricula for teachers, and material to help teachers communicate with parents.

“It’s amazing how little is being taught about responsible digital citizenship, and it’s not all about ‘tech’. Media literacy is also understanding the source and quality of information.”

It’s amazing how little is being taught about responsible digital citizenship, and it’s not all about ‘tech’. Media literacy is also understanding the source and quality of information. These are things that have nothing to do with technology.

CSG: Let’s talk briefly about teens and “tweens”, or pre-teens. What about their media use?

MR: Teens and tweens are using their mobile phones primarily to watch TV shows and listen to music. Their interest in TV and music is not so different from the pre-internet days. There’s this big cultural conversation going on about “addiction,” which kind of misses the point. Kids are certainly using plenty of social media on their phones, but it’s hard to tell yet what’s concerning and what’s moral panic. It’s like a generation or two ago when people were saying that television was making kids stupid, or even earlier when parents complained about kids listening to loud rock music.

“Kids are certainly using plenty of social media on their phones, but it’s hard to tell yet what’s concerning and what’s moral panic.”

It’s important to have a nuanced conversation. Kids are using devices in a lot of ways. Restricting older kids’ smartphone use isn’t as simple as no TV for a week, or turning off a video game. One teen said in an interview: “When you take away my phone, you take away my life.”

Teens and pre-teens aren’t just chatting or gaming, they are talking about homework, looking up stuff for school. For a lot of kids, their whole lives are on their devices. You can’t disconnect your kids from that.

Michael Robb Is director of research at Common Sense, a U.S.-based independent nonprofit organization dedicated to helping kids thrive in a world of media and technology. Common Sense provides information, advice, and tools for parents, teachers, and policymakers.

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