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Young Children Turning to Mobile Devices, Report Finds

Young children have dramatically greater access to smartphones, tablet computers, and other mobile devices than they did just two years ago, and the time they spend using those devices has also jumped significantly during that period.

In fact, more than one-third of U.S. children under the age of two have now used a mobile device to watch a video, play a game, or use an app.

Those are just some of the eye-opening findings from a national survey conducted by Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based organization that provides independent ratings, information and advice related to educational media.

"Even a casual observer...knows big changes are afoot when it comes to children and new media technologies," says the group's new report, "Zero to Eight: Children's Media Use in America 2013," released Monday.

"The only way to maximize the positive impact of media on children," the group argues, "is to have an accurate understanding of the role it plays in their lives: which platforms they are using, the activities or content they are engaging on those platforms, and how their media-use patterns vary by age, gender, or socioeconomic status."

The new report, which updates a 2011 examination of similar issues, is based on a nationally representative survey of 1,463 parents of children 8 years old and younger. Among the findings, which are based on parents' estimates of their own children's media usage:

  • Three-quarters of children from birth to age 8 now have a mobile device in the home, compared to just over half in 2011. The biggest change has been in tablet computers, which 40 percent of children now have access to in the home, compared to just 8 percent in 2011. 
  • Seventy-two percent of children from birgh to age 8 have used mobile devices for media activities (playing games, watching videos, or using apps), nearly double the rate found in 2011 (38 percent).
  • Among those young children who use a mobile device in a typical day, the average length of time on the device went from 43 minutes in 2011 to 67 minutes in 2013.
  • Gaps between affluent and low-income families persist, both in terms of access to high-speed Internet connections and to mobile devices and applications. The latter is closing, however. According to the report, "Access to smartphones has gone from 27 percent to 51 percent among lower-income families over the past two years, while tablet ownership has gone from 2 percent to 20 percent among the same group. Two years ago, 22 percent of lower-income children had ever used a mobile device; today, 65 percent have done so."
  • The proliferation of mobile devices does not appear to have made a major impact one way or another on how frequently young children read books, which is the least-common activity in which young kids partake on their smartphones, tablets, and the like.

Despite the explosive growth of mobile technologies, however, there's been an overall 21-minute-per-day average decline in total screen time for children from birth to age 8. According to the report, that's the result of kids consuming less "traditional screen media," including 12 minutes less per day watching TV, nine minutes less watching DVDs, six minutes less using a computer, and four minutes less playing video games compared to 2011.

Nevertheless, the folks at Common Sense Media report that "television still reigns supreme in children's media lives," accounting for roughly half of young children's total screen media usage each day.

What does all this mean for families?

Not much, according to the report. Fifty-eight percent of the parents surveyed said media usage neither increased nor decreased the amount of time their family spends together.

And as for the parents themselves, well, you might have to wonder a bit about the reliability of self-reporting here: Just 6 percent of the moms and dads surveyed said they often use media to keep themselves occupied while they are out playing with their kids.

Follow @BenjaminBHerold and @EdWeekEdTech for the latest news on ed-tech policies, practices, and trends. 

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