The American Academy of Pediatrics once again urges parents of infants and toddlers to limit screen-time for their children, says The New York Times; and based on figures in Future of Children's Children and Electronic Media and reports from the Kaiser Foundation, the timing couldn't be better: more than three quarters of households with children age six and under have personal computers; nearly a third of children under age two have a television in their bedrooms. With the exception of sleeping, American youth of today spend more time with media than any other activity.
Young children's increasing media exposure could be catalyzed by other trends. The current economic crisis has pulled hundreds of American homes below the poverty line, and Future of Children's Work and Family reports that divorce rates, working mothers, and single-parent households are on the rise. In many households, both parents must work to make ends meet, limiting the amount of time parents can spend with their children. Low-wage working parents are the least likely to have the resources and flexible work schedules to be involved with their children.
Findings suggest that the children most affected by these economic changes could be the most at risk of high media exposure. A 2011 nationally representative study of over 1300 parents of children ages 0 to 8, found that children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds spend more time with media and are much more likely to have a TV in their bedroom. As many as 42% of these parents say they sometimes use media to occupy their children while they do chores. Similarly, the Kaiser Foundation found that many parents encourage their children to use media because it gives them a chance to get things done without having to worry about leaving them unsupervised.
What can be done to ensure more positive outcomes for children using new media?
The main lesson learned from the Future of Children's Children and Electronic Media volume can be captured in one phrase: content matters. Rather than focusing on the type of technology used or how much time is spent with media, parents and policymakers need to focus on what is being offered to children on the various media platforms. In addition, although more research is needed, parents' co-viewing and mediation can have positive effects on learning from educational media.
As media use plays an increasing role in children's lives, content selection and parental involvement will become increasingly important. It is critical that parents continue to educate themselves about good media use based on their children's developmental stages and monitor their children's media use to ensure that it is healthful and constructive. (See the Children and Electronic Media volume for more on this.)
Children and Electronic Media notes that children under age two benefit more from real-life experiences than they do from video and that too much screen time may lead to childhood obesity and other health problems. However, under appropriate circumstances, technology can be beneficial to children of older ages. Upcoming Future of Children volumes on Children with Disabilities (Spring 2012), Literacy of American Children (Fall 2012), and Postsecondary Education (Spring 2013) will further explore the role of media and technology in children's learning.