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Kids Spend More Time With Screens Than Books

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You've seen that adorable video of the toddler completely befuddled by a magazine, poking her pudgy finger at the cover, not understanding it isn't an iPad and has no apps?

If you did, I bet it made you laugh. (If you didn't just take a look below.) But I'm also betting that for a moment it also made you wince. The intersection between parenting and technology tends to bring out that reaction. These shiny toys that didn't exist when we were children...What are they doing to our kids?

The lack of answers is not for lack of studying. But by definition, measuring the effects on a generation takes a little time. The newest addition to the literature is being released today by Common Sense Media, 
and it finds that children aged newborn to 8 are watching more media than ever before. Among their findings:

  • 42% of children under 8 years old have a TV in their bedrooms, including 30% of 0- to 1-year-olds, 44% of 2- to 4-year-olds, and 47% of 5- to 8-year-olds.
  • Half (52%) of all 0- to 8-year-olds have access to a new mobile device such as a smartphone, video iPod, or iPad/tablet.
  • More than a third (38%) of children this age have used one of these devices, including 10% of 0- to 1-year-olds, 39% of 2- to 4-year-olds, and more than half (52%) of 5- to 8-year-olds.
  • In a typical day, one in 10 (11%) 0- to 8-year-olds uses a smartphone, video iPod, iPad, or similar device to play games, watch videos, or use other apps. Those who do such activities spend an average of 43 minutes a day doing so.

The result, the report concludes, is that children are spending more time with screens than with books. (The New York Times has a good article about the report here.) In their first year of life, they spend more than "twice as much time watching television and DVDs (53 minutes) as they do reading or being read to (23 minutes)." That gap gets higher as children get older. Researchers report that up to age 8, the average child spend an hour and forty minutes each day watching TV or DVS, compared to "29 minutes reading or being read to, 29 minutes listening to music, 17 minutes using a computer, 14 minutes using a console or handheld video game player, and 5 minutes using a cell phone, video iPod, iPad, or similar device."

Yes, this is something to worry about. But know that you are not the first generation of parents to wonder what new fangled things are doing to their children. When the ball point pen replaced the inkwell, there were some who lamented the end of penmanship and discipline. The telephone would clang through family dinnertime! The calculator would ruin their math skills!

In the history of humankind, however, there is no technology invented that has not been used. (Let's leave the defense industry out of this.) So the goal can't be to condemn screens, but rather to learn how best to use them. After all, there can be books on those screens. There is a measurable gain in eye and hand coordination. And there is legitimate value in a screen's ability to quiet and entertain a child in places -- airplanes, long car rides -- where the alternative used to be fidgeting to screaming.

If you get past the headline of the report, there is, however, a fact that is a different kind of troubling. It's about what the researchers call the "app gap" -- the reality that this preponderance of screens is a privileged problem. While nearly half (47 percent) of upper-income parents have downloaded new media for their children, only 14 percent of lower-income parents have done so. Lower-income children watch more television which is a relatively passive medium; upper-income children play more with interactive apps.

That fact changes the lens, doesn't it? The same technology that, a moment ago, we were discussing as a threat to a child's development, now looks like a benefit. Or, at least, a luxury. (True, luxuries and benefits are hardly the same.)

Which is it then? Or maybe, as with everything else about parenting, it all depends on specifics of family dynamics that can't ever be captured in a single study?

What is your child's media diet? What are your worries?

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