Looking into “screen” time for children ─ impacts on reading

For good or for bad, screen time is increasing for most of us, including our children. There’s even a term for this now in the dictionary: screen time is “time spent using a device such as a computer, television, or games console” (Oxford Dictionary). A recent post from Too Small to Fail[1] raises the question of how much screen time is recommended for use with young children. The emerging recommendations may surprise you the answer is different for children under vs. over the age of two.

For the youngest children, the American Academy of Pediatrics “strongly recommends that children under the age of two not be allowed any screen time, regardless of the quality of programming or the device. This is because from birth until age three, the young brain is rapidly developing and learning from its environment.”[2] There is “evidence that too early exposure to television and other electronic media can actually have a detrimental effect on language development and reading skill.” The bottom line: “babies and toddlers learn best from the parents and caregivers who talk, read and directly interact with them every day.”[3]

The case is different for older children, where “age-appropriate media can be helpful to learning.” Research shows that “low-income children who view public media have made significant gains in vocabulary development, including letter recognition, letter sounds, and word meaning.” But there are cautionary notes even for this group. Experts “recommend that all children’s screen time be limited – including television, computer, and mobile devices – and that parents and caregivers closely monitor the content.”

Some very interesting research on this topic is coming from Common Sense Media, an organization that has been conducting studies on the impact of media on children up to the age of 8 for the last few years. Common Sense Media is recommending a “balanced media plan” that “considers the age of the children and controls the environment in which the media is consumed.”[4] This seems like good “common sense.”

There’s a lot to digest in Common Sense Media’s most recent research for folks interested in literacy development. Key take-a-ways for me:

  • Mobile devices are increasing rapidly in use among families. The ramifications in their use for young children, however, should give us serious pause, given what research advises for early optimal brain development.
  • The amount and frequency of reading by children ages 8 and younger (reading by children or being read to) appears unchanged over the last few years, despite growing use of mobile media devices. Mobile devices do not appear to be increasing reading despite the proliferation of new reading devices like tablets nor to be decreasing reading given the competition from greater access to games and video players of many types.
  • Though access to mobile media devices and applications among poor and minority children is much higher than just two years ago, there’s still a large gap between rich and poor that must concern us all.
  • Television still dominates children’s media time despite a growing “mix” in the use of traditional media such as television, DVDs, video games, and computers.
  • Broadcast television continues to be the biggest provider of educational content for 0-8 year olds. It’s also the most accessible and used platform for educational content among lower-income children. This is especially important since educational television is the one type of educational content that lower-income children are more likely to consume than higher-income children─ with positive impacts on important aspects of their literacy development.

If you want to learn more about this recently published research from Common Sense Media, including its six key findings, please keep reading.    

 “Zero to Eight: Children’s Media Use in 2013” (Common Sense Media, Oct. 2013)[5] reports on its national survey of parents of children age 8. The survey is the second in a series to document children’s media use the first was conducted in 2011. Here’s a little background to better understand the findings:  

  • Screen media includes time spent watching television, playing video games, using a computer, and using mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. Mobile media refers to smartphones and tablet devices; e.g., iPads, Androids, and other devices that can connect to the Internet, display videos, and download applications (“apps”). Other media includes children spending time reading/being read to and time listening to music.
  • There are several limitations to the study acknowledged in the report. Especially important, the findings are based on parents’ estimates about their children’s use of media and, therefore, parent’s estimates are not likely to be fully accurate. Still, the survey is a good starting place for understanding the impacts of changing media on children.

Here are the six findings from the research report (from pages 9-11):  

#1: “Children’s access to mobile media devices is dramatically higher than it was two years ago.”

  • Among families with children age 8 and under, there has been a five-fold increase in ownership of tablet devices such as iPads, from 8% of all families in 2011 to 40% in 2013. The percent of children with access to some type of “smart” mobile device at home (e.g., smartphone, tablet) has jumped from half (52%) to three-quarters (75%) of all children in just two years.”

#2: “Almost twice as many children have used mobile media compared to two years ago, and the average amount of time children spend using mobile devices has tripled.”

  • “72% of children age 8 and under have used a mobile device for some type of media activity such as playing games, watching videos, or using apps, up from 38% in 2011. In fact, today, 38% of children under 2 have used a mobile device for media (compared to 10% two years ago). The percent of children who use mobile devices on a daily basis – at least once a day or more – has more than doubled, from 8% to 17%.”
  • “The amount of time spent using these devices in a typical day has tripled, from an average of 5 minutes a day among all children in 2011 up to 15 minutes a day in 2013. The difference in the average time spent with mobile devices is due to two factors: expanded access, and the fact that those who use them do so for longer periods of time. Among those who use a mobile device in a typical day, the average went from 43 minutes in 2011 to 1 hour and 7 minutes in 2013.”

#3:“Time spent with “traditional” screen media such as television, DVDs, video games, and computers is down substantially, by more than half an hour a day [31 minutes].”

  • “Overall, children age 8 and under spend 12 minutes less per day watching TV, 9 minutes less watching DVDs, 6 minutes  less using a computer, and 4 minutes less playing video games than they did just two years ago. On the other hand, time spent consuming media on mobile devices such as smartphones and iPads increased by 10 minutes a day (from 5 minutes in 2011 to 15 in 2013) but not enough to offset the decrease in other screen media. With the increase in mobile media use and the decrease in other screen media use, total screen time among 0- to 8-year-olds is down an average of 21 minutes a day to just less than two hours a day (1 hour and 55 minutes compared to 2 hours and 16 minutes in 2011).”
  • “In a typical day, 47% of babies and toddlers ages 0 through 1 watch TV or DVDs, and those who do watch spend an average of nearly two hours (1 hour and 54 minutes) doing so. This is an average of 53 minutes among all children in this age group, compared to an average of 23 minutes a day reading or being read to. Nearly one in three (30%) has a TV in their bedroom. In 2005, among children ages 6-23 months, 19% had a TV in their bedroom. Looking just at 6- to 23-month-olds in the current study, 29% have a TV in their bedroom.

#4: “Television still dominates children’s media time, but new ways of watching now make up a large portion of viewing.”

  • “Two-thirds (65%) of 0- to 8-year-olds watch TV at least once every day (ranging from 37% of 0-1 year- olds, to 73% of 2- to 4-year-olds and 72% of 5- to 8-year-olds). Forty-two percent have a TV in their bedroom, and 39% live in a home where the TV is left on all (10%) or most (29%) of the time, whether anyone is watching it or not. Children this age spend an average of 1 hour and 44 minutes watching TV or videos in a typical day, compared to 29 minutes reading, 29 minutes listening to music, and 25 minutes playing computer or video games.”
  • “… television still reigns supreme in children’s media lives. It is the medium children use most frequently, by far: nearly six out of 10 children (58%) watch TV at least once a day, compared to 17% who use mobile devices on an everyday basis, 14% who are daily computer users, and 6% who play video games every day. Also, of the roughly two hours (1 hour and 55 minutes) average screen media use each day, half (50%) is spent watching television on a TV set (57 minutes). This compares to 19% spent watching DVDs, 13% using mobile devices, 10% using computers, and 9% using video game players.”
  • “…the nature of TV viewing is changing, with time-shifting of programs becoming quite common. Of the 57 minutes a day spent watching TV on a television set, almost a third (18 minutes or 32%) is spent watching programming that was recorded earlier on a DVR (10 minutes), downloaded or streamed (6 minutes), or accessed on demand (2 minutes).”

#5: “Access to mobile media devices and applications among poor and minority children is much higher than it was two years ago, but a large gap between rich and poor still persists.”

  • “Two years ago, our study identified both an ongoing digital divide in home Internet access as well as a new “app gap,” a disparity in access to mobile devices and applications. With regard to the traditional divide, access to high-speed Internet among lower-income families has essentially stalled over the past two years (it was 42% in 2011 and is 46% today, a non-significant difference), and the gap between rich and poor endures (86% of higher-income families have high-speed access).”
  • “… gaps in mobile ownership, although still substantial, are closing. For example, access to smartphones has gone from 27% to 51% among lower-income families over the past two years, while tablet ownership has gone from 2% to 20% among the same group. Two years ago, 22% of lower-income children had ever used a mobile device; today, 65% have done so.”
  • “Despite this increase in ownership, the gaps remain large. For example, although 20% of lower-income children now have a tablet device at home, 63% of higher-income children do; and while 35% of lower-income parents have downloaded educational apps for their child, 75% of higher-income parents have done so. 

#6: “Television continues to be the most widely-used platform for children’s educational content.”

  • “…many young children are using educational media including content delivered on new mobile devices. But television is still the platform with the greatest reach (by far), especially among children in lower-income families.”
  • “Among all 0- to 8-year-olds, 61% often or sometimes watch educational TV shows, compared to 38% who use educational content on mobile devices as frequently and 34% who use educational games or software on computers at that rate. Among 5-to 8-year-old children, use of interactive media for educational content is higher than among younger children, but TV is still the most popular platform even for this age group (59% often or sometimes watch educational TV, 48% often or sometimes use educational computer games or software, and 44% often/sometimes use educational games or apps on mobile devices).”
  • “Educational content for mobile devices is much more likely to reach higher- than lower-income children. Half (54%) of higher-income children often or sometimes use educational content on mobile devices like smartphones and iPads, but only 28% of lower-income children do. Similarly, 44% of children in the higher-income group use educational games or software on a computer compared to 25% of lower-income children. By contrast, educational television is equally likely to reach lower- as higher-income children: 63% of lower-income children often or sometimes watch educational television compared to 56% of higher-income youth (a non-significant difference).”
  • “Much of the gap in use of educational content on computers and mobile platforms is due to lack of access to these technologies among lower-income families. Among children whose families own a computer, the gap in use of educational content disappears. Among children whose families own a mobile device such as a smartphone or tablet, the gap in use for educational purposes diminishes to 14 percentage points (59% of higher-income children whose families own a mobile device often or sometimes use educational content on it compared to 45% of lower- and middle-income children whose families own such a device).” 

Those are the six key findings.Here are some other really interesting findings from the report:

  • Reading rates (p. 28): Children’s reading rates are nearly identical in 2013 to 2011. On average, children ages 0-8 read or are read to for just under half an hour a day (28 minutes), a rate nearly identical to that found two years ago (29 minutes). The amount of time spent reading or being read to varies by age from 19 minutes a day among children under 2 up to 32 minutes a day among 5- to 8-year-olds (very similar rates to 2011).”
  • More on reading (p. 28): The growing prevalence of mobile media devices does not appear to be having a net impact on either the amount or the frequency of reading among young children (is not increasing reading due to the proliferation of new reading platforms nor decreasing reading due to competition from increased access to games and video). E-reading is clearly possible now for many kids: 40% have a tablet such as an iPad or similar device in their home, on which electronic books could be read (up from 8% two years ago), and 21% have a device specifically designed as an e-reader such as a Kindle or a Nook (up from 9% in 2011). As of 2013, more than one in four children (28%) have ever read books (or been read to) on an e-reader or tablet device. E-reading is still much less frequent than print reading, however,4% of children do it every day out of a total of 60% who read/are read to every day. Reading is the least-common activity on multipurpose tablets or small devices among all the options children have. They are more likely to have used a smartphone, iPod Touch, or tablet to watch video, play games, and use apps than they are to have read books on them.”
  • Children under 2 (p. 23): Television continues to be the key media used by children under 2 but many more babies and toddlers are experimenting with mobile media. “Two-thirds (66%) of children under 2 have ever watched television, an identical rate to that found two years ago. But today, 38% of all children under 2 have ever used a smartphone, tablet, or similar device for playing games, watching videos, or engaging in related activities; two years ago, 10% had done so.”
  • Children are using a wide variety of “apps” from as early as 9 months old (p.22). Examples from parents surveyed of the apps children are using the most often: 9-month-old boy (Zoodles, My Baby Drum, Baby’s Music Box); 10 month-old girl (Angry Birds, Peekaboo, Talking Tom); 1-year-old boy (Grandma Run, Angry Birds, Cupcake Maker); 2-year old boy (Jake and the Neverland Pirates, Team Umizumi, racecar apps); 2-year-old girl (Potty Time, Jake and the Neverland Pirates, Endless ABCs); 3 -year-old girl (Dora the Explorer reading app, Super Wow reading app, Monkey Preschool Lunchbox, ABC Tracing, Learning House, Doc McStuffins puzzles); 4-year-old boy (Angry Birds, Where’s My Water, Plants vs. Zombies); 6 year-old girl (Jewel Mania, Cut the Rope, Angry Birds, Fair Maker, Tiny Zoo, Dragon Story, Pet Hotel, Fashion, Smash Dude, Talking Tom, Creepy Manor, Baby Dress Up, Farm Story, Home Design, Kinder Add, PBS Photo Factory); 8-year-old boy (Top-It Math, Stack the States, Stack the Countries, Scholastic Reading Timer, Candy Crush, Stickman BMX, Red Bull Racing); 8-year-old girl (Temple Run, Angry Birds, Flow Free, TicTacToe, Fair Maker, Blitz, Tiny Dentist, Monster Mouth).

Two years from now, Common Sense Media will be issuing its third report on children’s media use. Some predictions: we will know even more in 2015 about brain development in young children, there will be many more “apps” available for children of all ages, and there will be many more “devices” to capture their attention. For now, I hope common sense prevails in the world of “screen time,” and the mainstays of literacy development persist parents and caregivers talking to, reading to, and directly interacting with our youngest children daily. 


[1] Too Small To Fail is a partnership between Hillary Clinton, in her role at the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation, and Next Generation to improve the health and well-being of America’s children ages 0 to 5.

[2] From Too Small To Fail Newsletter, Dec. 11, 2013; with link at Dec. 13 Too Small To Fail Facebook site. 

[3] From Too Small To Fail Newsletter, Dec. 11, 2013; with link at Dec. 13 Too Small To Fail Facebook site. 

[4] From Too Small To Fail Newsletter, Dec. 11, 2013; with link at Dec. 13 Too Small To Fail Facebook site.   

[5]Common Sense Media’s Program for the Study of Children and Media provides parents, educators, health organizations, and policymakers with reliable, independent data on children’s use of media and technology and the impact it has on their physical, emotional, social, and intellectual development: (research@commonsense.org)

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