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Thought Leaders Recognize the Importance of Research in Kids' Media

Common Sense attended the international ICA conference and identified key trends in media influence on children to explore.

Young child looking at a tablet on their knees.

We know that children are spending more time than ever with media. And they're being exposed to a wide array of constantly evolving information, served up by feeds that need to be regulated and monitored. This increased usage underscores the necessity of continued research on how media impacts children's lives, as well as the critical need for useful resources that help guide families on the healthy use of media in all forms. Parents, caregivers, educators, and policymakers across the country need evidence-based research to understand kids' media use and its impact on their overall health.

I attended the recent 72nd annual conference of the International Communication Association (ICA) on behalf of Common Sense. The annual ICA conference brings together participants from around the world to discuss the scholarly study of communication by encouraging and facilitating excellence in media and communication research. This year's theme, "One World, One Network," examined how communications researchers explore "one-ness" among individuals, families, children, organizations, and communities. This research highlights how our networks can enable or undermine social support, social justice, and social movements. I had the opportunity to participate in discussions about diversity and representation, which were featured in many panels at the ICA conference, emphasizing the importance of inclusive research at all levels.

This year, several key topics at the ICA conference specifically aligned with our work at Common Sense. Here's how some panels in the Children, Adolescents, and Media (CAM) division track with three current and future Common Sense research paths:

Addressing the needs of children from marginalized groups and adapting research to consider their needs.
Two ICA panels focused on this topic, and discussed the importance of moving away from framing differences among groups as divergence because that language characterizes groups as in-group vs. out-group. Instead, we need to move toward framing ethnic or racial findings as comparisons. The Common Sense Census currently uses this framing. With this framework, we can include traditionally marginalized groups in a way that does not render them as "others."

These panels also brought attention to the people and voices promoting diversity. Common Sense research shows that children seek out content with characters that look like them. For example, Black children want to hear about diversity, but they really want to hear about it from Black characters. Our existing DEI research reports, including The Inclusion Imperative and the more recent Who Is the "You" in YouTube report, highlight the importance of diversity and inclusion. Content providers should take accountability and exert their power to positively influence how race and ethnicity is represented on their platforms by elevating diverse voices and real-life experiences. YouTube and other content providers could act as a source of positive representation for youth who are seeking messages and entertainment that align with their ethnic-racial identity.

Our findings illustrate the significant role of content providers in positively influencing how race and ethnicity are represented and discussed on their platforms, and the role that content creators can have on how audiences understand race and ethnicity. Future Common Sense research will continue to consider these vulnerable groups as part of our research on marginalized children.

Meeting kids where they are and improving media literacy and training.
One panel discussion emphasized the positive and negative impacts that social media influencers can have on children. One paper on this panel highlighted that children are exposed to a large number of advertisements and product promotion in YouTube videos, while another panel emphasized the danger of alcohol-related Instagram references from influencers and how they affect adolescents' perception of alcohol use and norms. A discussion on the potential silver linings of YouTube influencers emphasized their power to promote positive health behaviors through their platform, such as healthy eating and lifestyle choices. Overall, there's a need to meet kids where they are: The more we learn about the influence and persuasiveness of advertising, the more we need media literacy education and training specifically geared toward parents and caregivers.

The Common Sense Digital Citizenship Curriculum addresses social media literacy and how to recognize influencers' messages, unrealistic images, and more. Future research should emphasize the unique role of parents in media literacy training.

The rising presence of artificial intelligence in our kids' world.
Another potential direction for Common Sense research focuses on voice-activated artificial intelligence (e.g., Amazon Alexa, Google Home) in the home. One panel discussed the role that these artificial intelligence assistants can have, especially when we consider how very young children can use these devices because they don't require print literacy—a child can have immediate access to this technology once they can speak. Additionally, the anthropomorphic nature of these smart speakers can be appealing to children who may developmentally struggle with distinguishing humans from bots, making it especially important to think about ways to teach digital competence around the use of these tools.

Common Sense previously conducted research in 2019 about smart speakers in the home. The discussion at ICA extends the scope of our research and proposes other areas to explore, including the dangers and privacy concerns of artificial intelligence assistants and their increasing presence in the lives of our children.

Common Sense strongly supports the Children and Media Research Advancement Act (CAMRA) to fund critical research that will help us understand the impact of media and tech on kids' overall health. Not only will better and independent research empower parents, educators, and lawmakers to take an evidence-based approach when it comes to creating safeguards for kids, but it will also support the development of higher-quality media and technology for children and youth.

That's why the need for independent longitudinal research on digital health has never been more urgent.

The research, reflection, and critique of these communication studies presented at the ICA conference help to guide our focus for future research here at Common Sense, while also reinforcing our research findings in the areas of DEI, digital citizenship, and privacy issues in the lives of our children. Technology is rapidly evolving, and we need to continue our research and advocacy to ensure safe, healthy, and empowered digital lives and well-being for all kids and families

Supreet Mann

Supreet Mann is director of research at Common Sense. She holds a PhD in communication and a master's degree in child development from the University of California, Davis. Her research uses a developmental lens to consider the role of social influences on children's socio-emotional outcomes, including prosocial behavior, risk-taking, and learning. In addition to presenting her work at national and international conferences, Supreet has published her work in a variety of academic journals, including Journal of Children and Media, Human Behavior and Emerging Technologies, and Journal of Child and Family Studies.