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2021 Common Sense Research Roundup: Eight Surprising Findings

Media and technology continue to shape kids' lives in important ways.

Throughout 2021, Common Sense Media conducted several studies of kids' media use to provide insights for parents, caregivers, educators, policymakers, and the media and technology industries. While the pandemic has certainly had an impact on where and how kids access media, we also saw the continued progression of many trends we had identified pre-pandemic.

We produced more comprehensive data across several critical areas: the role of media in kids' social lives and mental health during the pandemic, the privacy practices of apps and services intended for kids, the impact of diverse media representation on kids' ethnic-racial development, and the inequities of the dramatic gap between students with high-speed internet and adequate devices and those without.

While our research confirmed our expectations in many areas, some of our findings were startling. Here are eight surprising findings from our 2021 research:

The scale of the digital divide for kids and families is massive. Roughly 30% of K–12 public school students in the U.S. are experiencing the digital divide. Of those, 9 million are fully disconnected, 5–6 million have insufficient internet, and 1 million don't have adequate devices. (Closing the K12 Digital Divide in the Age of Distance Learning, with Boston Consulting Group)

Kids and parents prefer diversity in their media. Almost three in four parents (74%) say their children enjoy media content with diverse characters, higher than those who say their child favors content that features characters that mirror their own lives (48%). (The Inclusion Imperative: Why Media Representation Matters for Kids' Ethnic-Racial Development)

Stereotypes in media persist, according to the perspectives of parents in underrepresented groups. The majority of Asian (52%), Black (64%), and Hispanic/Latino (54%) parents feel that representation of their own ethnic-racial group in media is stereotypical, while only 32% of White parents do. (The Inclusion Imperative)

Young people from targeted groups experience more harmful treatment on social media than typical kids. Three in 10 young women are "often" exposed to sexist comments, more than a third of young Black people are "often" exposed to racist comments, and more than four in 10 LGBTQ+ youth "often" encounter homophobic posts online. The frequency of encountering hate speech on social media has increased significantly since 2018. (Coping with COVID-19: How Young People Use Digital Media to Manage Their Mental Health)

Social media played a vital role in helping kids support their mental health during the pandemic. More than one in five teens and young adults said social media is "very" important to them for getting support or advice when needed (20%), feeling less alone (21%), getting inspiration from others (23%), and expressing themselves creatively (25%). (Coping with COVID-19: How Young People Use Digital Media to Manage Their Mental Health)

During the pandemic, kids proactively turned to media to keep learning and expressing their creativity, even when outside of school. Tweens and teens used media to learn something they were interested in (78%), to create (53%), or to share something with others (39%). And this online learning and creativity was not related to work they were doing for school. (The Common Sense Census -- The Role of Media During the Pandemic: Connection, Creativity, and Learning for Tweens and Teens)

Apps used by children and students feature unhealthy practices that put their privacy at risk. Two out of three products used by youth have privacy practices that track them on the app and across the internet for advertising purposes. (State of Kids' Privacy Report 2021)

Almost all of the top 10 streaming apps and top five devices put the privacy of their youngest viewers at risk. Apple TV+ is the only product that received a Pass rating. Netflix received a Warning rating and the lowest overall score because they display targeted ads and don't talk about how they protect kids. (Privacy of Streaming Apps and Devices: Watching TV That Watches Us)

These findings are not the whole story. But they do remind us why it's so important to point kids toward the very best of media, and of the responsibility we all have to ensure kids have safe, healthy digital spaces free of hate speech and misinformation. Look for more from us this year on how kids' media use is evolving, and how the content they engage with impacts their perspectives on the world around them.

Michael Robb

Michael Robb is head of research at Common Sense, overseeing the development and execution of a mission-aligned research program, overseeing multiple research projects on the roles of media and technology in children and families' lives. He has published research on the roles of media and technology in children's lives in a variety of academic journals, and his work has been featured in press outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and NPR. Michael also has supervised community educational outreach efforts, helping parents and teachers make the most of quality children's programming. Michael received his B.A. from Tufts University, and M.A. and Ph.D. in psychology from UC Riverside.


Michael lives in Connecticut with his wife, two sons, and dog, Charlie. His hobbies include hiking, cycling, racquetball, escape rooms, video games, and binge watching great TV shows. Since having kids, he's now perfecting the art of picking up toys, building obstacle courses with pillows, and napping. He and his wife force their children to listen to showtunes in the car.