The director of research for Common Sense Media shares recent findings on kids’ online lives and digital media habits.

By Rafael Heller

KAPPAN: What should Kappan’s readers know about Common Sense Media, where you serve as director of research?

MICHAEL ROBB: Common Sense is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping kids thrive in the digital age. Our goals are, first, to share unbiased information about children’s media and, second, to advise teachers, parents, and policy makers on ways to ensure that kids benefit from new technologies and avoid any harmful effects.

We started in 2003 as a resource for parents, but we’ve grown a lot since then. Currently, we have three main platforms. One is the Common Sense Media website, which offers ratings and reviews of TV shows, movies, and games in order to help parents and kids choose appropriate media content. We also have Common Sense Education, which provides digital literacy and citizenship curricula to schools, free of charge. And we have a policy initiative called Kids Action, which advocates for high-quality early education and health care programs, equal access to technology, and strong protections for online privacy.

Back in 2003, when we began, the internet was still the big new thing, and we did a lot of work to respond to public concerns about kids going online. Also, parents wanted to know if it was dangerous for children to play violent video games, and they were curious about all the new educational products that were being marketed to them — the Baby Einstein videos, for instance. But those were the pre-smartphone days, and since then, the whole landscape has changed. Still, though, as the technology has evolved, we’ve tried to say true to our original mission: serving as a resource for parents and others in what can be a confusing time, given the ways in which digital media have come to permeate our lives.

KAPPAN: How does your research fit into all of this work?

ROBB: We see research as central to our mission for a couple of reasons. The main reason is that we want to give the public the best advice we can, and that often means pointing to the evidence and explaining to people why they shouldn’t believe everything they see in the news. When journalists cover media-related topics, they tend to get carried away, scaring parents about everything from technology addiction to video games’ supposed connection to school shootings. So we think it’s important to figure out what the evidence actually says, so that people can make informed decisions about kids’ access to media, rather than reacting to overblown news reports. As we like to say, we believe in sanity, not censorship. And good research helps keep us all sane.

At the same time, we also conduct a lot of surveys and other research projects that we hope will contribute to the larger knowledge base on the effects of media. For example, the Common Sense Census — which we’ve done in 2011, 2013, and 2017 — collects a ton of basic information about kids’ media use. That provides important data for the research community in general, allowing people to track the ways in which media use changes over the years for young children, tweens, and teens.


KAPPAN: Can you give an example of how the research challenges a popular belief about kids’ media use?

ROBB: A couple of years ago, we did a study about technology addiction, and the issue ended up being much more complicated than I expected. For example, we found that among researchers and psychologists, there’s no real agreement as to what technology addiction is, how it could be measured, or how prevalent it might be. It seems clear that there are some kids out there using technology to excess, and that it’s having a negative impact on their lives, but it’s difficult to say much more than that.

The press likes to use a broad brush, saying that a lot of kids are “addicted” to their cell phones or computer games. But when experts talk about addiction, they mean that a problem behavior — gambling, for example, or taking drugs — has gotten to be so severe that a person can no longer function in everyday life and needs some sort of external support to get back on track. We’ve found that when it comes to the amount of technology kids consume, what many parents experience can better be described as frustration or disappointment. Very rarely does a kid’s technology use rise to the level of pathology. So, rather than being quick to use a loaded term like addiction, I’d like to see more research into what’s really going on: Can we get a clearer picture of the ways in which constant cell phone use, for example, affects kids’ cognitive, physical, and social-emotional development? And are tech designers unfairly designing products to take advantage of kids’ attention?

The press likes to use a broad brush, saying that a lot of kids are “addicted” to their cell phones or computer games, but what many parents experience can better be described as frustration or disappointment.

Again, that’s not to say there aren’t areas of concern. For example, it’s clear that multitasking impairs people’s ability to focus, and it’s clear that most kids engage in a significant amount of it. As far back as 2010, research found that when 8- to 18-year-olds used media, they spent about a third of the time using two or more media simultaneously — for example, surfing the web while listening to music. In real time, they were engaged with media (including both screen media and music) for 7 and a half hours per day, on average. But since they were cramming more than one kind of media into the same period of time, they were actually engaged with almost 11 hours of media content over those 7 and a half hours.

Young people don’t think it’s harming their ability to get things done, though. In a 2015 survey, we found that large numbers of teens and tweens were watching TV and texting while doing homework, and they didn’t think it was affecting the quality of their work. But of course, there’s no such thing as true multitasking (in reality, people just shift back and forth between tasks), and attempting to do so impairs one’s ability to create memories that can be retrieved accurately later on. In fact, the people who say they’re good at it — the heaviest media multitaskers — turn out to do worse at remembering key details and filtering out irrelevant information than those who don’t multitask, or do so lightly.

KAPPAN: Has your research raised any other big concerns about kids’ media use?

ROBB: Actually, it’s parent media use that’s made me concerned recently, especially when it comes to parents of young children. We know that children tend to thrive when they have a lot of language-rich, warm, supportive interactions. If parents are spending much of their time on digital devices, that can displace those interactions and have a negative effect on their kids. There isn’t a ton of research on this issue yet, and it’s hard to measure parent distraction, but some small, preliminary studies have shown that parents who were distracted by their devices tended to be harsher with their kids, and their kids tended to act out more as a way to get their parents’ attention.

I’ve also been concerned by research findings about the amount of time parents leave the TV on at home. In our 2017 Census, 42% of parents of children age eight and under said they leave the TV on all the time, even if nobody’s watching it. I know this doesn’t have to do with kids’ digital lives exactly, but it’s an important part of the bigger story about kids and media. If the TV’s always on, then it’s a significant distraction from the quality and quantity of parents’ interactions with their kids, and it also detracts from kids’ imaginative play and other activities that support healthy child development.

Again, though, I don’t want to give your readers such a negative impression about kids’ media use. Parents often worry that social media and the internet have created a new and radically different world, but they tend to forget that the technology just provides new ways for adolescents to do what they’ve always done: connect with each other and find validation from peers. And if there’s an association between depression and time spent online, that doesn’t mean the technology causes kids to be depressed. It could be the other way around: Maybe kids who are depressed are turning to technology to soothe themselves. News stories about tech and kids tend to be very alarming, but we need much more research about what role tech plays, and ensure that we don’t downplay other non-tech contributors to kids’ well-being.


KAPPAN: I hear you saying that if we want to understand how kids are living with digital media, then we should be wary of generalizations and hyperbole and stick to what we actually know. So give us some of the highlights from the Common Sense Census. What are some of the main findings about how children are using media today?

ROBB: The most striking thing is how ubiquitous mobile media, especially smartphones, have become over the last several years. Our 2017 Census showed that nearly 98% of kids under age eight live in a home with some sort of mobile device. That’s a rapid and dramatic increase — the figure was 52% just six years earlier. Similarly, in 2011, fewer than 1% of kids had a tablet computer at home; by 2017, 78% of homes had a tablet, and 42% of young children had their own tablet.

Overall, the amount of time kids spend on screen media hasn’t changed much over those years — for children ages eight and under, the average is about 2 hours and 19 minutes per day. The proportion of time they spend on each kind of device has changed a lot, though. In the past, kids spent a lot more time watching TV, viewing DVDs, and playing console games, but now they spend about a third of their time on mobile devices.

KAPPAN: Does the evidence suggest that kids from different backgrounds use media in different ways?

ROBB: We know that lower-income families tend to use much more screen media than do middle- and higher-income families. Affluent kids spend about 1 hour and 50 minutes on screen media every day, while kids from low-income families spend almost 3 and a half hours, and that gap has increased significantly over the last four years.

The obvious question is why screen time differs so much by income level. But we have to be cautious in trying to interpret this. The bigger question is what opportunities are made available in different homes. For example, if more affluent kids have greater access to high-quality after-school programs, music lessons, and other toys and resources, then they’re likely to spend less time on media. But if a smartphone or tablet is one of the few resources kids have at home, then it’s not surprising to find that they spend more time using it.

Also, it’s worth noting how fast the digital divide has been closing. Since 2011, the gap between higher- and lower-income families’ access to high-speed internet has been more than halved — from a gap of 50 percentage points to 22 points — and 74% of lower-income families now have high-speed internet. The trajectory is similar for ownership of mobile devices and computers. Overall, then, we seem to be closing the gap in access to technology, and that should allow us to focus on closing opportunity gaps, having to do with the ways in which people use that technology.


KAPPAN: Have you found any differences in kids’ media use by race or gender?

ROBB: In our 2015 survey of tweens and teens, we did see some differences by race and ethnicity, but it’s tough to disentangle this from family income level. Black and Latino kids spent more time using media than did White kids, and Black teens reported much more media use than did White or Latino teens: Black teens reported a total of 11 hours and 10 minutes of media use per day (and remember that multitasking inflates the total; if a kid spends 4 hours surfing the web while also watching TV, this would count as 8 hours of media use), compared with 8 hours and 51 minutes for Latino teens and 8 hours and 27 minutes for White teens.

When we compared boys’ and girls’ media habits, though, we found some clear differences. The biggest was that boys spent much more time playing console video games, while girls spent 40 minutes more time per day, on average, using social media. Also, girls were much more likely than boys to say they enjoyed reading, and they said they devoted more time to it.

KAPPAN: Other than playing games and chatting, how are kids using digital media? In particular, how do they spend their time online?

ROBB: In our study of tweens and teens, we looked at four different categories of online activity: passive consumption (such as watching YouTube videos), interactive consumption (such as playing games or browsing websites), communication (such as chatting through social media), and creation (using media to create and share their own writing, art, music, or other content). We found that tweens and teens spent far and away the most time on passive consumption, while creation accounted for roughly 3% of their media use.

Teens are much more likely to say that spending time interacting with each other online has a positive impact on their social-emotional lives than a negative one.

Also, we’ve found that the amount of online socializing ramps up dramatically in the teen years. On average, tweens reported that they spent only 16 minutes a day on social media, but by the time they reach their teens, their social media time is up to an hour and 11 minutes. That might sound like a lot of time socializing online, and the news stories about this have been mostly negative. But when you ask teens about it, they’re much more likely to say that spending time interacting with each other online has a positive impact on their social-emotional lives than a negative one.

For example, one in four teens say that using social media sites makes them less shy and more outgoing, and about 20% say it makes them more confident. By comparison, only about 5% say it makes them feel less outgoing, and 4% say it makes them feel less confident or worse about themselves. Overall, though, most teens say it doesn’t make a difference one way or the other.

But at the same time, a lot of teens say they wish they could disconnect more often. In 2016, we did a survey about how kids are feeling about their own use of smartphones and other mobile devices. Half of teens said they felt addicted (though, again, it’s not clear what that means, exactly), and a third said they often or occasionally try to cut down on the time they spend on social media.

KAPPAN: How often do kids bully each other online? Has this become a bigger problem than in the past?

ROBB: Estimates of cyberbullying vary a lot, depending on who’s asking and how it’s measured. For example, some reports estimate that anywhere from 7 to 15% of kids have been targets of cyberbullying, while other reports say that up to 40% of kids have experienced it. What’s more clear is that the incidence of cyberbullying is higher among certain subgroups, such as kids with disabilities, kids who are overweight, and LGBT kids.

The thing is, though, that cyberbullying is very highly correlated with traditional bullying. That means, first, that it’s hard to address one without addressing the other. Second, it means that the overall incidence of bullying may not be any worse as a result of social media. It might be the case that bullies are just shifting some of their behavior from the schoolyard to the internet.

KAPPAN: What do your findings reveal about the extent to which parents are supervising their kids online?

ROBB: We did a survey of parents a couple of years ago. As I mentioned earlier, we found that for all the public attention to the amount of time kids spend with digital media, parents are logging almost as many hours as their kids. On average, parents of tweens and teens spend more than nine hours using media every day. And if you take out the time spent using media for work, the total still comes to seven hours and 43 minutes. Not surprisingly, 41% of teens said that their parents’ media use distracted them during their time spent together; 77% of parents felt that way about their kids.

For all the public attention to the amount of time kids spend with digital media, parents are logging almost as many hours as their kids.

By the way, in the same survey, 78% of parents said that they’re good media and technology role models for their children. Of course, that probably means different things to different parents. Two thirds said that they monitor their tweens’ and teens’ online activities, and they said that this was more important than respecting their kids’ privacy. A lot of parents also said that they have rules for media use. For example, a majority said that they don’t allow smartphones or computers during meals or just before bedtime, and they said that their kids can’t purchase any apps without their approval.

By and large, then, parents do seem to be involved in monitoring and managing their kids’ time online. They certainly have concerns about the amount of time their kids spend with media, and they worry that their kids are sharing too many personal details. But they also have overwhelmingly positive attitudes about the value of digital technology in their kids’ education. Almost 94% of parents think the technology supports their children in school, 88% think it supports them in learning other skills, and 77% think it increases their kids’ exposure to other cultures. So it’s a mix. Parents are concerned about the amount of time kids spend online, their exposure to violent and pornographic content, and their sharing of personal information, but they’re also convinced that going online can be positive.

KAPPAN: That brings us back to the beginning of our conversation: From parents and journalists, we hear a lot of anxiety about kids’ media use, but their concerns don’t necessarily match up with the evidence. How do you reconcile these very different perceptions about the pros and cons of online life?

ROBB: Well, again, that’s why we need to keep doing and sharing the research. Generally speaking, the press coverage of these issues is not well balanced, and the public mostly hears negative and alarming stories about cell phone addiction and cyberbullying and children holed up alone in their rooms.

From kids, too, we hear a lot of frustration that their voices aren’t reflected in the news, and that parents aren’t getting the full picture. In a 2015 survey, three-quarters of tweens and teens told us that the news media should make more of an effort to interview people their age, rather than always asking adults to give their opinions about what young people are doing online. Plus, to the extent that kids do get interviewed or featured in press reports, it’s unclear whether those kids are representative of the larger population.

In 2016, we did a set of qualitative case studies of low-income kids’ media use, and it gave us some very different perspectives from what we tend to hear in the press. For example, when we visited kids living in very stressful environments (say, a one-bedroom apartment with their mother and a couple of siblings), we realized that putting on headphones and going online wasn’t just a way to connect with peers. It was also a way to carve out some much-needed privacy and space for themselves. That’s the kind of story we don’t often hear.

RAFAEL HELLER (@RafaelHeller2) is editor-in-chief of Phi Delta Kappan magazine.

Originally published in March 2018 Phi Delta Kappan 99 (6)20-26. © 2018 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.