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Singled out

A new US study finds TV is still tops with kids, even amongst an ever-growing melee of digital platforms.
January 1, 2012

At a time when kids content creators are under pressure to expand their scope beyond TV to mobile and other digital platforms, a new study released by San Francisco-based research firm Common Sense Media (CMS) serves as a reminder that TV continues to dominate kids’ media use. Time spent with new mobile media is undoubtedly increasing, but it continues to lag way behind larger-screen media among children eight and under. In fact, CMS’s Zero to Eight: Children’s Media Use in America, released late last fall, found that US kids under eight spend a total of just five minutes each day using cell phones, iPods/iPads or similar devices to play games, watch videos or employ apps. Compare that to the one hour and 44 minutes per day they spend watching TV or videos, the 29 minutes spent daily on reading and listening to music, and the 25 minutes devoted to playing computer or console games.

“Clearly television is still king of all media,” says the report’s author Vicky Rideout, who owns an independent consulting firm and was previously VP of the Kaiser Family Foundation, where she established the Program for the Study of Media and Health.

For its part, Zero to Eight was derived from a survey of more than 1,300 US parents of kids ages zero to eight. Panelists were randomly recruited using address-based sampling and digital telephone surveys. Households that didn’t have computers or internet access were given a notebook computer and dial-up access to complete the online survey. The CMS study’s findings were then broken down by age, race, gender and socio-economic status.

“If you’re trying to reach kids with any kind of pro-social messages media can be an incredibly effective way to do that,” says Rideout. “So you need to know what kind of media kids are using and when they are using it,” she adds.

Though TV is still king, digital media use among children is on the rise. The study found that just over half of zero to eights have access to one of the newer mobile devices at home—either a smartphone (41%), a video iPod (21%) or a tablet (8%). And more than 25% of the parents surveyed have downloaded apps for their kids. In a typical day, 11% of kids use a cell phone, iPod, iPad or similar device for 43 minutes.

The app gap
The disparity between the 11% of kids who use a mobile device for 43 minutes per day and the overall average—just five minutes per day—speaks to the growing digital divide between socio-economic groups in the US.

“There’s a great deal of hope and potential being placed on mobile interactive media to play a big role in terms of informational education,” says Rideout. “It’s really important to remember that if we place educational content on those platforms, it is not reaching lower-income kids right now, and those are the kids we most need to reach with this content,” she says.

Rideout explains that not only are those lower-income kids not part of the mobile audience yet, but it’s unclear as to when or how they will join it. In fact, she expects the disparity between lower-income and more affluent children to persist, pointing to how long it took for lower-income families to obtain regular access to computers—a problem she noted more than 20 years ago. (Today, just 48% of kids from households with an annual income under US$30,000 have computers in their homes, compared to 91% from households making US$75,000 or more.)

“If we want to tap into the power of media to help with education for low-income kids, we can’t walk away from television,” says Rideout.

The biggest screen
Zero to Eight found that 25% of lower-income kids are more likely to obtain educational content from the television than from other media. About 5% play educational computer games and only 2% have access to educational games or apps on mobile devices. In fact, broadcast television (read terrestrial TV) in the US is the most accessible and widely used platform for educational content among lower-income kids. Almost all members—93%—of this group have a TV in their homes, but only 53% have access to cable or satellite programming, meaning most rely on public broadcasting to serve their viewing needs. It also means that lower-income kids (26%) are more likely to consume educational content than their well-off counterparts (17%) because curriculum-based programming makes up a bigger part of public service broadcast schedules than it does of those on cable networks.

More TV for the under-twos?
When it comes to television consumption in the time since Rideout conducted a similar study for the Kaiser Foundation in 2005, she says the main difference now is that time spent with TV has increased—especially for children under two years old. In 2005, approximately 19% of US kids under age two had TVs in their bedrooms. That number now sits at 30%, which Rideout says suggests preschoolers are watching more TV without their parents in the room.

Also on the rise among households with children under age two is the tendency to leave the television on in the background, whether or not anyone is watching it. “Background television has the tendency to interrupt children’s thinking and play,” says Rideout. “Studies have documented that it interrupts their play an average of three times a minute,” she says, adding that those interruptions increase the amount of time it takes to learn a motor skill through play.

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