What Can 2,000 Kids Tell Us About Media?

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Image: Copyright WGBH 2014
Image: Copyright WGBH 2014

Much is being said these days about technology dominating the lives of our kids. National research is showing what many of us see every day, that kids are increasingly connected while we, as families, may be more disconnected.

Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp for $19 billion shows they’re banking, in part, on family connectivity increasing further with the uptick in mobile. Others decry the loss of family connectivity around a shared TV in the living room.

And many parents continue to believe that the way to monitor a child’s online behavior is to set up a computer in a visible space like the kitchen, even though a typical modern home has so many more ways to connect to the internet. The explosion of mobile devices, internet-enabled televisions, and game consoles have rapidly made the idea of monitoring single points of access redundant. Kids are Snapchatting, Kik-ing and IM-ing to their hearts’ delight, away from parental view on small devices held in their sticky hands under our noses. Are they hiding in plain sight?

There are definitely many different arguments to be made and so, from a dual vantage point, I’d like to dig into this. I am a producer of digital content for kids, and my current work includes a forthcoming photo-sharing app. I am also the parent of two teens. I am not a researcher, but I have a strong interest in what the research is showing about how kids use media.

I’ve recently managed to steer these interests towards a new project I am producing. Knowing how little monitoring or co-viewing there is, this is aimed directly at kids and is focused on digital media literacy. It will be called Ruff Ruffman: Humble Media Genius and it will launch online this fall at PBS KIDS. My overall approach to digital media literacy is both to evangelize the potential of this awesome technology, but also be realistic about its many possible pitfalls.

I hope to share work in progress here in the coming months, and I thought you might be interested to hear some results of an early survey I just ran with 2,000 kids, aged 6 to12. It is self-reported — it’s a convenience sample in the research jargon — but with such a big response rate and no obvious incentive to fabricate answers, I’m pretty confident that what I’m seeing is truthy enough to qualify, at the very least, as anec-data.

Here is some of what I’m seeing so far. Does this ring true for your family?

  • 75% of kids use two screens at once, sometimes or often, typically they’re watching TV with a device in the hands or on their laps.
  • About 20% of kids 12 and under are on Facebook despite it being for 13 and up. (They maybe haven’t realized that many teens are abandoning Facebook now that Mom and Dad use it.)
  • Only 22% claim to have their media use always watched by their parents, with even less being asked about their online use by the parents. That’s nearly 80% running free.
  • Over half the kids have no rules about their media use, with another 15% being allowed more than one hour/day.
  • 85% have parents always or sometimes distracted by their own devices. I resemble that remark, I admit it.
  • You still see the old “stay where I can see you” attempt at monitoring in 10% of replies. That might have worked when there was just one point of access to the internet in the house, but for many that is a distant memory.
  • About 45% say they text, but more than that say they use social photo apps, so they are drawing a distinction there. Maybe Snapchat isn’t seen as texting, but is its own animal. Either way, they are being social in very large numbers.

I’d welcome comments here if you have your own take on the state of parenting this generation of kids. I might have said they’re a tech-enabled generation. But I wouldn’t claim they’re tech-savvy or digital natives. They’re just kids. And our role as geek moms and dads is as fun and challenging as ever.

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