A majority of American parents say they are concerned that digital media is interfering with childhood development. Yet most do not think their own children spend too much time with electronic devices.
That’s according to a recent report [PDF] by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. The nonprofit research lab analyzed surveys of 810 parents with children ages 3 through 10 and reported some seemingly paradoxical findings:
- About 59 percent of parents say their children’s digital media use prevents them from getting physical exercise.
- More than half (53 percent) say the media use can pose a threat for online safety and privacy.
- About 40 percent of parents say digital media infringes on time their children would otherwise spend in face-to-face interactions.
- Only 18 percent of parents believe their own children spend too much time with digital media.
Why the apparent contradiction? Researchers say it’s likely because the nature of digital devices today is more private and portable. Parents may not be aware of just how much time their little ones are spending in their rooms, using social networks or playing video games.
Some childhood experts said the findings are not surprising, considering earlier reports on media use. Children ages 8 to 18 are spending an average of 7½ hours a day with digital media, including TV, computers and video games, according to a study released last year by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
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Parents need to consider what sort of activities their children are missing out on when they spend so much time with electronics, said Peter Mangione, co-director of the Center for Child & Family Studies at WestEd. The San Francisco-based nonprofit provides research, development and services to improve learning outcomes.
“I would not want a child spending half their free time on digital media,” Mangione said. “When they’re in the middle of the childhood period – age 7 through 10 – they’re meant to be engaged: talking with people face to face, working in groups, collaborating, learning how to regulate behavior. Those are the things that have an impact on how well the child will function later on.”
While many groups have blamed digital media for hindering family relationships and infringing on children’s physical activities, the Cooney Center researchers are cautiously optimistic about its potential to educate.
“It’s a digital world, so at some point, kids are going to use digital media, whether by choice or not,” said Lori Takeuchi, author of the Cooney Center report. “If kids start using computers before they get to school, they’ll be at an academic advantage because they’ll be more comfortable with the tool.”
Takeuchi added that social media can help expose children to other cultures and viewpoints.
“It gives kids this idea that they can communicate with the world outside their home,” she said. “So you can raise them to care about the planet and world issues.”
But, she said, that potential will be realized only once television producers, video game makers and other media producers create better-quality educational programs.
Unlike movies and TV shows with broader appeal, many video games tend to target just children or adults. There is an optimal period, around the time when children are 6 or 7, when they want to engage in games with their parents and could stand to learn something, Takeuchi said.
In the report, she made recommendations to those in the industry to innovate and create new programs and applications that would give children a chance to use their digital media to socialize, exercise and play with others.
As for her advice for parents, Takeuchi suggests that they make screen time into family time by watching TV or playing video games with their kids. That would help inform parents about how much digital media their kids are consuming and make it a more enriching experience.
“Research has found that kids learn a lot more when a parent is watching TV with their child and is there to explain what’s going on,” Takeuchi said. “Parents can be open-minded and seek out information about the potential of using digital media for learning.”