Missed Opportunities? Tweens and Educational Media

Dale Kunkel, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of Communication at the University of Arizona. He spoke as a provocateur at the Learning at Home Forum on January 24, 2014 in New York. Here, he shares his thoughts on the dearth of quality educational content for older kids on various platforms, including television, mobile devices, and video games. A video of his remarks is available below.

Kids spend several hours every day with screen media – watching TV, surfing the Internet, playing video games, exploring computer apps, and so on.  How much of that time is well spent?  According to a new study from the Cooney Center, children aged 2-10 devote nearly an hour a day to media content that parents consider educational.  That sounds like good news.  By the age of 12, if that finding were consistent across the age span, that equals more time than is spent in the classroom over two full school years.  But this new study also tells us the picture is not so rosy.

Use of educational media is heavily concentrated in early childhood, mostly between 2-4 years of age.  It drops almost in half by the time kids are 5-7 years old, and roughly in half again for ages 8-10.  A separate trend shows that as children grow, they increase their total time using screen media significantly.  Put these two findings together, and one sees a badly missed opportunity.  Older children watch the most screen media, yet spend the least amount of time with any educational content.

In the late 1960s, when television was still relatively new, the creators of Sesame Street pioneered the production of highly engaging and educational media content for young children.  Children’s Television Workshop (now known as Sesame Workshop) produced the program, establishing one of the most cost-effective educational efforts ever pursued in the U.S.  Millions of children gained significant learning from Sesame Street at a cost of pennies per child in terms of the funding invested from government and philanthropic sources.  The model proved so popular, Sesame productions were adopted in dozens of countries world-wide.

There have been other hit shows produced over the years by Sesame and a handful of other educational producers, but most such programs are geared primarily to younger kids, and it’s been that way for a long time.  I can’t think of a single noteworthy “tween”-targeted TV show with strong learning value over the past decade.

If there’s a shortage of educational content on television for older kids, the new Cooney Center report shows things are even worse for most of the new media that are popular with this age group, such as video games, Internet-connected computers, and mobile devices.  According to parents, children spend an average of only 5 minutes a day with educational games or software on a computer, 5 minutes a day of educational activities on mobile devices like a smartphone or iPad, and 3 minutes a day playing educational video games.  Contrast these numbers with children’s overall time spent with these electronic media, and the “missed opportunity” picture comes more clearly into focus.

Academic achievement among U.S. children continues to slip precipitously.  We lag behind major competitors like China and even emerging economies like Poland in scores on science and math.  Steps are obviously needed to reverse this trend, and it’s apparent that increasing traditional funding for the schools is not viable, especially as the nation struggles to recover from a recession.  An obvious alternative that is consistently overlooked is using electronic media to stimulate and promote children’s interest in learning.  Given the large potential audience for electronic media, such efforts can be cost effective beyond one’s wildest imagination.

In the 1980s, Ed Palmer, the long-time Vice-President of Research for Sesame Workshop, proposed a novel idea.  Palmer argued the government should provide a penny a child per day to support the development of educational media for children.  At current population levels, this would yield about $250 million annually to stimulate the development and availability of educational media for youth of all ages.  We already spend an average of roughly $58 per day per child to support in-school education.  For the tiniest fraction more per child, funding could be provided to jump-start creation of educational media content for kids, including the new media that are quickly becoming an integral part of their everyday lives.  As new media continue to attract greater amounts of children’s time, it seems a shame to see them used them simply to amuse or to market products to the nation’s youth. That seems to be the path we are currently following.

Electronic media are potentially the most cost efficient — yet still the most neglected — form of educational technology ever invented.  We have little reservation about using government funding to stimulate the economy in difficult times.  People understand that such investments yield benefits over time in terms of increased employment and economic expansion.  As we face increasing challenges to successfully educate all segments of America’s youth, it makes perfect sense to similarly invest in innovative fashion to stimulate children’s learning.  In a world where one of every eight 2-7 year-olds is already using an iPad or similar tablet device on a daily basis, imagine the benefits if they could engage some truly age-appropriate educational content in addition to – dare I say instead of – playing Angry Birds!

Dale KunkelDale Kunkel (Ph.D., Annenberg School, University of Southern California, 1984) is Professor Emeritus of Communication at the University of Arizona.  Kunkel has studied children and media issues for more than 30 years.  He is a former Congressional Science Fellow, and has testified as an expert witness at more than a dozen hearings before the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House of Representatives, the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission.  His research has examined such topics as children’s educational media, the effects of televised violence, media and sexual socialization, and the effects of advertising on children. Over his career, Kunkel has received research grants totaling more than $5 million from a diverse range of sources, including government agencies, the media industry, and public health philanthropies such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.  He was recently named a Fellow of the Morris Udall Center for Public Policy Studies, and has also received the International Communication Association’s career award for Outstanding Public Policy Research and the Broadcast Education Association’s Distinguished Lifetime Scholarship Award.  
Special thanks to Scott Traylor of 360kid.com for the video. Homepage slideshow credit: Flickr/Ann and Tim