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Real Lives, Real Media Use

Case studies of kids from lower-income minority families show how age, living circumstances, and access to technology influence how they use media.

A 14-year-old complains good-naturedly about how much her foster mother texts her: "This lady blows up my phone!" A 12-year-old who shares a single room with her mother and four siblings streams music through her headphones to stay calm. A mom who can't be home all the time checks in every few hours to ask, "Have you eaten? Have you done your chores?" to keep her son from too much screen time.

These stories reflect the real lives of 11 African-American and Latino kids between the ages of 11 and 15 from lower-income households. They are part of Common Sense's newest report, Connection and Control: Case Studies of Media Use Among Lower-Income Minority Youth and Parents. In previous research, we found that teens and tweens from lower-income families spent more time with media than those from higher-income families. We also found that African-American teens used an average of over 11 hours of media a day, compared with almost nine hours among Latinos and eight and a half hours among whites. As we all know, statistics are helpful at painting a broad portrait of kids' media use, but the only way to understand the true impact that devices and screen time have on children is by getting a close look at kids' experiences.

Case studies are especially helpful because kids' screen time is often discussed as if kids were a uniform group. However, the ways in which kids use media are much more complicated. Simply put, different children use media differently, depending on their age, living circumstances, interests, access, and a range of other considerations.

Here are some of the key insights from the report:

  • Kids' media practices are connected to their living situations. A 14-year-old in the study recently moved to an unsafe neighborhood where he has no friends, limiting his social activities. He was more of a video gamer in his old home, where he lived in a safer neighborhood and had his friends and his brother and a video game console. But, in his new place, he watches TV almost all day, having lost his console plug in the move.
  • Media and technology can support children's well-being. Television shows and movies, music, games, and books provide entertainment, which becomes particularly important when children are living in a neighborhood with a high violent crime rate. Mobile devices provide powerful tools for meaningful communication: A 14-year-old girl living with her foster mother uses her phone to text frequently with her birth mother and father, saying that these text exchanges help her feel "relieved."
  • Parents manage kids' media whether or not they're knowledgeable about tech. One parent in the study felt comfortable checking her kids' search histories, turning the data on her kids' devices on and off on a schedule and installing software to monitor her children's whereabouts. Another foster mother with less knowledge about digital media called the phone company directly to put her daughter's phone on standby when she wanted to take her data privileges away.

The number of hours kids spend with screens in a day is only one aspect of their complex media lives. To get a better understanding of the range of activities tweens and teens engage in and the variety of contexts that may influence their media and tech use, read the case studies in the full report. As parents, schools, policymakers, and social service agencies look for ways to connect with tweens and teens, they should factor in kids' real experiences to find ways to use tech to support children's interests and goals.

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.