I want one, therefore I have one.

“Who has an email account?” we ask the second grade children sitting eagerly before us. Almost every hand goes up excitedly.

“And who has an S-account?” I then ask (saying the first non-existent thing that pops into my head). Almost three-quarters of the hands go up excitedly. I only heard one skeptical child turn to her friend and ask, “What’s an S-account?”

As we interviewed children across the country to gain a better handle on their responses to The Electric Company, we collected a lot of information about the most appealing shows, websites, books, and video games. Given that we have created content for The Electric Company on various platforms and in various formats, we continually seekto understand what our target audience has in their homes and which touch points will give us the greatest access to our audience. Our interviews with children take place in their schools or after-school settings and generally rely on self-report measures from the children to tell us what they have in their homes.

In fact, most of the field’s data on media and technology ownership on a national level relies on self-reporting from children or adults. More ethnographic studies can illuminate what is truly available and common in homes, but the number of participants in such studies is often too small to make strong claims about population use, and larger community-based ethnographies are extremely expensive and time-consuming endeavors. Hence, we ask children and parents what exists in the home and take their word for it. But what we have come to discover, is that children sometimes say that they own a device or frequently engage in an activity even when they may not — particularly if that device or activity is considered “cool.” In other words, wanting something may sometimes translate (when speaking to an outside observer) to having it. 

In one of our studies, we surveyed or interviewed over 200 children ages 6 to 9. About half of the children were individually interviewed by a researcher and the other half filled out surveys in groups with researcher support. Children were asked questions about specific television shows, video games, and websites and how often they used various media and technology. As part of a validity check, we included questions on how often they played or visited five non-existent games or websites. We were then able to compare children’s answers on the various measures based on whether they had “clean/valid” data (i.e.,  those who did not fall into the validity trap) versus those with “exaggerated” data (i.e.,  those who claimed to have played or visited at least one non-existent game or website).

Slightly over half of the children claimed to have played non-existing games or visited non-existent websites. There were no differences in exaggeration by gender or whether children were individually interviewed or by the group survey.  There were strong differences by validity of reporting (clean versus exaggerated data) in children’s reports particularly on handheld devices and on activities generally known to be popular among teens and adults (e.g. emailing and instant messaging). For example, while only 21% of the children with “cleaner” data said that that owned their own mp3 player (like an iPod), 43% of those with “exaggerated” data said they owned one. Similarly, 29% of children with “cleaner” data said they ever emailed their friends and family, 65% of those with exaggerated data said had ever done so. 

We didn’t include the “fake” games, videos or sites to trick the children, but instead to develop a way to get a more accurate picture of what is truly available to children in their homes. These kinds of validity checks should also be used on adult surveys. Taking inflated ownership or user rates at face value will not help children, particularly those from disadvantaged homes and neighborhoods, gain access to educational materials that may be offered on such platforms should policies be developed on the notion that a majority of children are wired on a variety of platforms, when they really may not be.

If the findings are more “directional” than absolute, they clearly tell us what children think is important, cool, and interesting. Children seemed to exaggerate ownership of new media devices and activities (e.g. handheld devices) over older media (e.g. television and computer). It is not surprising that a recent Nielsen study found that the iPad stands out at the top children’s (ages 6-12) holiday wish lists. But unfortunately, just because we want something doesn’t mean we will get it.

Without sounding like Scrooge, our findings suggest that we may need to vary our research methods to gain a more accurate picture of what children may or may not have in their homes. The more researchers can use various methodologies to get at that “truth,” the better we can help policy makers design educational interventions and programs that use technology based on what is actually accessible to children. However, educational media providers should never ignore the “wants” because we will be much more effective at educating children if we can combine the power of substantial content with the thrill of using engaging and interactive technology.

Jennifer Kotler is the Assistant Vice President of Domestic Research at Sesame Workshop. She holds a Ph.D. in Child Development from the University of Texas at Austin.