With the holidays quickly approaching, Common Sense Media and the Center on Media and Human Development at Northwestern University have delivered a great gift to the children’s media research community. The Common Sense Census: Plugged-In Parents is a sizeable quantitative data source that has analyzed—and put into qualitative context—what families do when they spend time with media.
The insight Common Sense has gleaned from nearly 1,800 US parents of tweens and teens—parsed across age of child, family race/ethnicity, family income, education and parenting style—adds dimension and nuance to previous works, like Common Sense’s own research into low-income and minority media use and its analysis of tweens’ and teens’ own accounting of their media use, as well as the work of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center on low-income families’ unique perspectives on media for learning. It can also help shape a range of future works, as academic, policy and industry organizations seek to align with families’ practical lives with media.
First and foremost, some interesting findings: Parents say they spend more than nine hours per day with screen media, the vast majority of which is for personal use. (Almost exactly a year ago, that same figure when given for young people’s media use was deemed “mind-boggling.”) It seems there is no shame in the media consumption, as 78% of parents believe they are good media and technology role models for their kids. At 81%, mothers are more likely to tout their role model behaviors than fathers (74%).
Still, parents have concerns over their kids’ social media use and online activities. In fact, 50% say social media hinders children’s physical activity, and 35% believe it hurts kids’ abilities to focus. A fifth admit that social media negatively impacts kids’ emotional well-being. And according to 43% of parents surveyed, tweens and teens are spending too much time online.
The “just the facts, ma’am” quantitative approach, however, leaves more questions than answers as a standalone report. It suggests that we (and in this I include the full range of practitioners studying children and media) still haven’t mastered the art of research in the digital era. We all use and cite many of the same tools and snapshots, but do they accurately portray the scope and texture of kids’ and families’ lives with media, now that it’s so pervasive and integral?
Is it still useful to measure media use with a stopwatch? Parents in the Common Sense study answered a series of questions regarding their own use of a variety of devices, framed with “thinking of yesterday, how much time did you spend…”
That same question would likely bring eye-rolls from tweens and teens. Most are carrying an always-on, does-everything device that is their window and a mirror; megaphone and a diary; clubhouse and secret hideaway.
Today’s parents of tweens and teens—though they grew up in a nascent digital world—still were conscribed in their social, academic or pastime pursuits by where they could physically reach. Today’s teens live in both a real and virtual community, and the latter has infinite libraries and schools, radio stations, shopping malls, game arcades and much more. Their time in that community can’t be quantified, because it’s entirely integrated into their lives. It shapes and reflects their identities.
The same applies to parents, though we may not yet realize or acknowledge it. Given how much almost every job—fast food to high tech, blue collar and white collar—requires use of a screen device, it seems unbelievable that parents reported only 100 minutes per day of work-related use. In both cases, I believe that our interactions with technology have become so instinctual and embedded that we can’t accurately answer a “how many minutes” question.
It’s also eye-opening that two-thirds of parents say their own multi-tasking with media—listening to music, texting, following social media, even watching television while working—has no impact (positive or negative) on the quality of their work. With so much concern about kids’ fragmented or distracted lives, it would have been great to ask a direct parallel question about their perceptions of their children’s multi-tasking. The closest question was whether social media (not multi-tasking) influences their child’s ability to focus (35% said it hurt).
Throughout, the report lacks parallel—again, a challenge we all face in reworking media research. Some questions regard “technology,” some specify “the internet,” some ask about “social media,” and still others ask about “content.” Because each conjures a different context, these terms may lead parents toward particular responses. These subtleties matter. It’s a different question whether social media helps or hurts physical, social and emotional development, versus asking about engagement with technology more broadly. “The internet” is so integrated into our digital and physical lives today that it feels amorphous to ask about parental concerns in that context.
It’s important to know parents are reasonably sanguine about their children’s media, despite the ever-more-complicated environment. (This, by the way, parallels a previous report about children’s media use, from the Northwestern University lab.) Parents absolutely see the educational potential of technology, and most seem to be evolving mediating or monitoring practices that work for their families. These findings open up new opportunity for dialog among industry, education and parents about Lisa Guernsey‘s trinity of content, context and the needs and abilities of the individual child.
To be sure, I’m nitpicking. For media-makers (my usual frame of reference), this report is most valuable in the wake of its release, as others add context through follow-on studies and discussion of how to apply its findings. We will all take the parts most relevant to us and together we’ll build a complete mosaic.
For example, we know from younger children that joint media consumption between parent and child supports engagement and learning. This report suggests, though it doesn’t ask directly, that adults observe or track their tweens’/teens’ media use, but don’t really participate along with them. Are there insights here that might shape new content for co-viewing or co-play?
Further, how can media companies take what parents admire and support about technology and strengthen it, or take parents’ fears and debunk or address them, and take parents’ own practices and guide them towards building a healthy family media ecosystem?
For researchers—academic and commercial—I hope the Common Sense Census will add to the discussion of new methods to supplement surveys, recollections and opinions. We need technological and observational methods that place us inside the complex, ubiquitous and ever-shifting behaviors of children and youth across the day, every day.
Analyst, strategist, writer and speaker David Kleeman travels the world as SVP of global trends for UK-based kids research consultancy and digital studio Dubit.