M is for Mobile

This piece was originally published in the Executive Summary of the 2017 Common Sense Census: Media Use by Kids Age Zero to Eight and appears here with permission.


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.

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