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Kids' Media Use Accelerated Rapidly During the Pandemic

The Common Sense Census 2021 reveals what tweens and teens truly enjoy about media … and what they don’t.

Two children of color using smartphones together while sitting on a couch.

Two years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we're beginning to see a fuller picture of the complex impact it has had on everything from the economy and health care to education and mental health. For parents, caregivers, educators, and policymakers across the country, kids' media use is an issue at the center of this conversation.

Our new report, The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens, 2021, reveals how the past two years have affected kids' media use. While many pre-pandemic trends continued, we saw acceleration across the board, as well as some shifts amid the emergence of new platforms and behavioral patterns. Here are some trends highlighted by our research on 8- to 18-year-olds:

In the past two years, media use for tweens and teens grew faster than in the four years before the pandemic.
As you might expect, the time spent on screens by kids age 8–18 is a lot higher today than before the pandemic. Between 2019 and 2021, the total amount of screen media used each day went from 4:44 to 5:33 among tweens, and from 7:22 to 8:39 among teens. That's a 17% increase in the last two years -- and it doesn't include screen time while learning at school or doing homework.

Some have expected that a return to in-person school and regular extracurricular activities will reverse this trend, but it hasn't thus far. Others believe the rising trend will continue, or that the pandemic simply brought on the inevitable. Either way, we will continue to monitor trends in media use, especially as we move into a new phase of the pandemic.

Online video has emerged as the activity of choice for tweens and teens, and YouTube is the must-have platform.
More than 6 in 10 tweens and teens watch online videos every day, and say they enjoy watching "a lot," far more than the percent who enjoy any other media activity that much. And this cuts across different groups. Watching online videos is the activity enjoyed the most among boys and girls, kids who are White, Black, and Hispanic/Latino, and those in lower-, middle-, and higher-income households.

Where are kids going to watch videos? Among the 79% of 13- to 18-year-olds who are regular users of social media and online videos (viewing at least once a week), 83% have used YouTube, and 68% have used TikTok. And nearly a third of kids (32%) age 8–18 say YouTube is the one site they wouldn't want to "live without."

The number of tweens using social media -- before they're technically old enough to do so -- is climbing.
Social media use by tweens climbed during the pandemic, with the percentage of 8- to 12-year-olds reporting that they had ever used some form of social media jumping to 38% in 2021, compared with 31% in 2019. Plus, the time spent using social media is up eight minutes a day among this age group, from 10 to 18 minutes a day, on average. When you zoom in on the 22% of tweens who used social media on the target day we asked about, the average time jumps to 1:20.

Considering tweens aren't technically allowed to be on social media platforms at all, this growth in use should be concerning for advocates for safe, healthy social media platforms.

Media use continues to reflect gender differences, as well as racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic differences.
Screen time has risen across the board, but what we've seen consistently each time we complete the Census is higher media use by boys, and higher use within communities of color and lower-income households. We can't say from this data why this disparity occurs, or whether it has positive or negative effects on young people. But the disparities persist and are substantial:

  • Boys use more screen media than girls (76 minutes a day more, on average, among tweens, and 74 more among teens).
  • Black and Hispanic/Latino children use more screen media than White children (for example, a difference of about two hours [1:57] a day between Black and White tweens, and two and a half hours [2:31] a day between Hispanic/Latino and White tweens).
  • Tweens and teens in lower-income households engage with substantially more screen media (9:19) than their peers in higher-income households (7:16).

Understanding how kids are using media and what they enjoy is important for parents and caregivers, educators, and the industries creating and distributing media. While we aren't certain what future Census reports will show, it seems that we haven't hit a ceiling on media use for tweens and teens.

Our research findings reinforce how important it is for kids to develop media literacy and for families to choose high-quality media experiences. Understanding kids' preferences, and what they're watching, playing and engaging with, can help families establish healthy boundaries and help create online experiences that are safe and positive for all kids, including teens and tweens.

Watch for future research from our Common Sense Research Program that takes a deeper look at teen media use on smartphones. We hope to capture not only time logged, but also the content kids are exposed to, and to examine relationships between their mobile device use and experiences directly tied to their mental health, such as cyberbullying, hate speech, and diet/body image content. This more comprehensive data will help us learn more about the relationships between media experiences and teen mental health.

Want to explore visual highlights from the Common Sense Census 2021? Check out our infographic.

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.