The iPad Era Hasn't Turned Your Kids Into Screen-Time Zombies

The iPad Era Hasn't Turned Your Kids Into Screen-Time Zombies
TV remains more popular than digital devices among kids, but children of all classes are watching less of it (Photograph by Moodboard/Corbis)
Photograph by Moodboard/Corbis

Here’s fresh data to fan the flames of a perennial parenting freak out: children and screen time. A new study released on Monday by Common Sense Media details how young children consume electronic media (PDF), based on a large national survey of children under eight years old. (Yes, everyone’s kids are obsessed with smartphones.) The three most striking findings:

Mobile Devices Are Popular—Just Not as Popular as TV: Thirty-eight percent of children under two have used a tablet, smartphone, or other mobile devices. In general, the use of mobile devices is exploding. Three-quarters of households with young children now have some kind of mobile device, and 72 percent of children have gotten their hands on one. That seems to indicate that there is only a four percent chance that you can own a smartphone or tablet and keep your toddler away from it.

Then there’s television. Two-thirds of kids under two have watched TV, and it remains the most popular form of media for children by a mile. In total, 58 percent of children watch TV at least once a day, while only 17 percent of children use a mobile device daily. One-third of children have a TV in their room; the most common reason is that it lets adults watch what they want elsewhere in the house.

Rich Kids Use Tablets, Poor Kids Watch TV: The digital divide, that phenomenon whereby wealthier families have better access to the Internet than their poorer counterparts, is shrinking somewhat because of mobile devices. The spread of access to high-speed Internet among lower-income families has stalled, but over half of families earning less than $30,000 now have smartphones and 20 percent have tablets.

A huge difference between how rich kids and poor kids consume media is how much TV they watch. Television time decreases drastically as income and educational levels go up. Richer parents are also much more likely to have downloaded educational apps for their kids than less-affluent parents, although that’s largely because they are more likely to own devices that run them.

But Wait—Total Screen Time Is Decreasing: The inexorable march toward zombie children who are glued to screens from an early age isn’t quite a reality, according to this survey. Kids are watching much less television overall, and they are not simply making up the difference by spending more time on mobile devices.

The total amount of time children spend looking at screens has dropped 21 minutes over the last two years. Meanwhile, the amount of time that parents spend reading to their kids hasn’t changed. Maybe for now, we can postpone the usual parenting panic.

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