The findings from the 2017 Common Sense Zero to Eight Census tell me that we have a long way to go in helping parents feel comfortable navigating the flood of new technologies in their homes. Ownership of smartphones, tablets, and new technologies like virtual reality and virtual assistants continues to rise -- which, in my research, parents describe as both a huge source of pleasure, but incredibly overwhelming too. Even though the overall time of screen media use is unchanged, the nature and experience of media use are different: Mobile device use is more individual, immersive, and on-demand, and it influences interpersonal dynamics differently and can be harder to break yourself (or your child) away from. For these reasons, parents describe it as more difficult to mediate and manage. My lower-income patients’ parents with lower digital literacy describe being particularly unsure how best to support their kids’ digital lives.
Pediatricians see ourselves as child advocates -- it’s part of our training. So when we see parents and children feeling overwhelmed or engaging in heavy or inappropriate media use in the context of obesity, sleep problems, executive functioning, or strained relationships -- behaviors that determine life course, health, emotional wellness, and productivity -- we want to help. While our 2016 media guidelines were designed to be more family-centered and action-oriented, the Zero to Eight findings tell us that these messages are not reaching the majority of parents, especially the families facing more stress and adversity. But there’s lots of interest, which gives us a huge opportunity to meet families where they are! I’m hopeful that resources like the AAP guidelines and those provided by Common Sense Media can start to reach families through outreach not only in pediatric clinics, but also environments such as schools, birth-to-three or home-visiting programs, and early education centers. By embedding practical (e.g., where to look for good TV programs; how to handle a screen transition tantrum) and conceptual (e.g., how to teach a child to use media as a tool, and not be consumed by it) guidance in the contexts in which children live, we have the potential to be much more helpful to families in the distinct ways in which media integrates into families’ lives.
We will also need the tech industry’s support to help empower parents to use media the way that feels right for their family. The high rates of media use at bedtime is a great example. In my experience and that of my sleep specialist colleagues, changing bedtime media habits is exceedingly tough. All the motivational interviewing and behavioral charts in the world can’t change some families’ use of tech at night. In addition to putting the onus on parents, pediatricians and media scholars should continue to work with industry to embed design features (e.g., bedtime Wi-Fi shutoffs or filters that only allow relaxation apps before bed) that will ease the job for parents and children who find it hard to regulate their own technology use. For the sake of child sleep, health, and family balance, it’s time to rethink user engagement as the primary goal of child technology design.
Dr. Jenny Radesky authored the 2016 American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement “Media and Young Minds.” She received her M.D. from Harvard Medical School and completed pediatric training at University of Washington and subspecialty training in Developmental Behavioral Pediatrics at Boston Medical Center. She is an assistant professor of pediatrics at University of Michigan, where her focus is digital media use by young children and their parents, child self-regulation, and parent-child interaction. Clinically, she works with children with developmental differences such as autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, and self-regulation problems, with an emphasis on family advocacy and psychosocial stress.
You may have heard that Sesame Street’s beloved Cookie Monster has learned some valuable lessons in delaying his gratification and eating right. He now knows that his favorite chocolate chip treat is a “sometime food,” part of a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, and the occasional hubcap!
The same is true of children’s media diets. Some experiences may constitute “empty” calories that should certainly be limited, while others that are proven to be educational, like Sesame Street, are more substantive staples. But parents and educators cannot know what “balanced” means if they don’t have an understanding of how kids are actually spending their time with media. Thanks to Common Sense’s Zero to Eight research initiative, we have a precise record of how much time kids spend on various types of media. We know what devices and platforms they’re using. We know the types of activities they engage in. And we know how those patterns have changed over time.
This year’s report contains a treasure trove of important findings. For me, the key one is the very rapid rise of mobile vis-a-vis other media, regardless of family income. In itself, mobile usage among young children is not a new phenomenon; our own research at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop has been documenting this trend since the introduction of the iPhone a decade ago. What is most interesting is the significant narrowing of the “app gap” as mobile device ownership has become more universal. And as this report documents, mobile is certainly here to stay. Children now spend 48 minutes a day on mobile devices. That’s a very substantial increase from just four years ago, when the daily average was 15 minutes!
The big question now: Can well-designed mobile media promote the type of parent-child “serve and return” dialogue that we know is so important to learning in the first few years of life? How can parents and educators ensure their children are engaging with well-designed, next-generation technologies as part of their balanced digital diet? We raised this concern nearly 10 years ago in a pioneering survey jointly conducted by the Cooney Center and Common Sense Media about the role of digital media in children’s lives. The question remains as relevant now as it has ever been, with technology continuing to morph at breakneck speeds.
The Cooney Center’s recent research suggests that many parents -- particularly those with lower household incomes -- may not feel confident with technology themselves, nor do they have the mentoring and support to find or use the highest-quality content with their children to maximum advantage. And while the Zero to Eight report suggests that young children are increasingly facile in operating mobile technologies, we don’t know yet how to best drive educational and home-based practices to extend learning and development outside of the screen. New programs that support trusted media mentors such as librarians and that offer professional development on the effective use of digital media for early educators are now very much needed.
Grounded in the reality of what children are doing every day, the data contained in this report will stimulate an important debate around many important questions. Today’s increasingly mobile families have a real opportunity to tap the potential of media to help establish a foundation for lifelong learning and success.
Michael H. Levine is the founding executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. The center conducts research, builds multisector alliances, and catalyzes industry and policy reforms needed to advance high-quality media experiences for all children. Michael also serves on the executive team at Sesame Workshop, where he focuses on educational impact and partnerships for the global nonprofit.
The latest Zero to Eight report reveals that the digital divide has narrowed considerably in the past few years. This news should make me ecstatic. Instead, I confess that when it comes to this topic, I tend to see the glass as half -- or at least one-quarter -- empty.
Today, 74 percent of lower-income families with children age 0 to 8 have high-speed internet service at home, compared with 96 percent of higher-income families. In 2011, only 42 percent of lower-income families had broadband access at home, versus 92 percent of higher-income families.
Although the digital gap between rich and poor is smaller, I still see this as evidence of a tragically missed opportunity. These numbers tell me there are still millions of children who don’t have computers or broadband at home, a problem that has led to a new term, called the Homework Gap. As school curricula increasingly shift to online educational portals, the lack of reliable broadband access to those resources at home is a crippling disadvantage, setting back even the most motivated learners.
All parents want their children to succeed on a level playing field. As the father of two young children, I’m no different. I want my kids to have the opportunity to fully contribute to the advancement of whatever profession they choose, whether it’s the arts, science, or public service. If everyone in America has the opportunity to reach for their maximum potential, our whole country will prosper.
There is a strong, positive correlation between a country’s broadband penetration rate and how well-off its people are. A 10 percentage-point increase in broadband adoption correlates to a $13,036 increase in GDP per capita, according to the World Bank’s World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends. Although the report is careful to note that there may not be direct causation, it points to “mutual feedback between the economy and factors that influence it.”
That is one reason why I, and Common Sense, have strongly supported policy initiatives to expand access to affordable broadband, with federal programs such as ConnectHome and Lifeline, which help low-income families secure broadband at home, and E-rate, which gives schools and libraries access to discounted internet access. As long as the digital divide persists, our nation’s ability to compete in the 21st-century global economy is crippled. I urge local, state, and federal policymakers to use the data in this report to mobilize the resources, both public and private, to ensure every member of our society can contribute to his or her fullest. We all have an interest in closing this divide.
Julián Castro served as mayor of San Antonio from 2009–2014. He was appointed U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in 2014 and spearheaded the ConnectHome initiative to bring low-cost broadband to low-income families with school-age children. Since the program’s launch in 2015 in 27 U.S. cities and one tribal nation, 37 percent of HUD-assisted households with children in these communities have gained internet access. Secretary Castro has two kids, an 8-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son.