Director’s Column: Media Usage and Young Children

By Jennifer Winters, Director
A child and her friends were running from the patio to the willow branch hut and said, “We’re running late! Did you bring the GPS?”
Today, access to media and devices is ubiquitous: Infants, toddlers and preschoolers are digital natives, growing up saturated by media of all types and being exposed to—and growing ever more attached to—devices that deliver media. This rapidly evolving phenomenon has pros and cons for parents of young children and early childhood educators to consider.
Mobile devices are especially prevalent. In this past decade we have seen smartphones, tablets and apps become integral parts of our lives. Nearly every home in the United States (98 percent) has a mobile device, and the average time spent using mobile media has tripled from 2011 to 2017 (Common Sense Media Census 2017). Screen media is available 24/7, and the escalation in the use of screen media shows no signs of slowing.
Although all of these tools are changing rapidly, and will continue to do so, we should not allow this to distract us from addressing the fundamental question: How can we best support young children’s overall development—cognitive, social, emotional and physical? I firmly believe that play best supports healthy child development. Children need time to think, to discover, to dream, to create. Screen media can augment play, but it can also interfere with it. According to a Common Sense Media survey of U.S. children’s media use from birth to age 8, children are using mobile devices for 48 minutes per day, on average. Clearly, this is taking away time that could be used for play: It takes time away from in-person interactions with other children, and with adults.
Just like a block to build with or a brush to paint with, screen media can be a tool to unlock an extraordinary amount of information to educate, inform and inspire. As screen time continues to grow and be an integral part of our lives and the lives of our children, it becomes even more important to understand how and when this tool is best used.
Several nonprofit organizations are researching children’s media usage—the positives and the negatives—and are publishing position statements. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and Common Sense Media are among the groups examining how screen media fits with the developing child. Since 2011, Common Sense Media has published an annual report on media use by children up to the age of 8. (See the CSM sidebar for highlights of the most recent report, which can be accessed in its entirety at
In 2012, the NAEYC published a joint position statement with the Fred Rogers Center, stating: “When used wisely, technology and media can support learning and relationships. Enjoyable and engaging shared experiences that optimize the potential for children’s learning and development can support children’s relationships both with adults and their peers—technology brings wonder and excitement to everyday learning environments.” Both organizations highlight how media tools can enhance exploration and learning, especially when parents are interacting with the child.
Perhaps one of the most poignant quotes from that report was from Fred Rogers about media tools and human relationships: “No matter how helpful they are as tools (and of course they can be very helpful tools), computers don’t begin to compare in significance to the teacher-child relationship, which is human and mutual. A computer can help you to spell H-U-G, but it can never know the risk or the joy of actually giving or receiving one.”
More and more households have a range of screen media—smartphones, tablets and, most recently, virtual reality. Parents are faced with a quandary: They may like/want/appreciate the technology, while at the same time they can also be overwhelmed by it and uncertain about how it best serves their child’s development. Even though the average time children spend consuming screen media has changed little since Common Sense Media began its census in 2011 (2 hours, 19 minutes per day), the move to mobile devices presents a significant challenge: They can go anywhere, they are always available, they’re easy to use, they are incredibly fun—even addicting—and their usage is difficult to monitor. And the gratification is immediate, which is a concern: One of the most important things we are trying to teach our young children is to delay gratification—think about how tempting that mobile device is compared to a marshmallow! And, it’s a 24/7 temptation.
There is temptation for both the child and the parent to reach for the device whenever there is downtime. For instance, on a car trip to Lake Tahoe, there is so much to see and talk about along the way—but if children are using a smartphone for all or part of the trip, they miss out on conversations, scenery, and opportunities to daydream or read a book. What we value as parents and educators will set the foundation for years to come. The growing amount of screen time sacrifices time that young children can be engaging in play, which research has proven best supports healthy development in all the domains—cognitive, social, emotional and physical.
Some pros and cons to technology and child development
Technology can offer information at your fingertip. For example, a child might be interested in trains. The child might have heard a train go by and maybe even the sound of the whistle, or perhaps saw it whiz past. But what about really up close? Together with a parent or teacher, the child might use an app on a tablet, computer or smartphone to see a train inside and out: to take a close look at the inside of the engine, the seats or compartments, to learn what freight a train might carry, and learn about different kinds of trains. The same goes for practically anything, and this can be exciting and educational for the child and the adult.
The ability to connect a child with family members who live far away has typically been accomplished with a phone call or occasional visits, but by using video chatting applications like FaceTime or Skype, they can see each other frequently. Grandparents and children can even have a meal together every night via Skype. Seeing someone provides a better experience than just hearing them.
One of the biggest concerns in selecting apps is that there are so many to choose from: How do you know what application is appropriate for young children? The choice can be absolutely overwhelming, and new apps come out every day. So many apps are deemed educational, but who decides this? Are they educational because the developer says so? There is no educational “seal of approval.” The fact is that mobile technology is everywhere, it’s easily accessible, and it is very difficult to monitor.
If a parent and child choose to watch Sesame Street on television or a computer screen, they can watch together (joint media engagement). Doing so enables parents to ask and respond to questions, point things out, and spend time with their child—as well as use what they watch as a jumping-off point to extend learning. However, with the move to mobile devices, this dual engagement becomes very difficult. As children grow older—elementary school and above—it can get harder to monitor what they are watching, which worries parents, and rightfully so! Mobile media can be a fantastic tool for adults and young adults, but for young children, it is taking away time from play. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, higher-order thinking skills and executive functions essential for school success— such as task persistence, impulse control, emotional regulation and creative, flexible thinking—are best taught through unstructured and social  (not  digital) play, as well as responsive parent-child interactions. (See the AAP sidebar for recommendations for media use).
We know that young children learn best through play—unstructured play, with thoughtful adults guiding it. Through play, children learn patience and respect, and build resilience, problem-solving skills, executive function, creativity, cognitive flexibility, empathy, compassion, confidence, self-regulation and, most importantly, a love of learning that can last a lifetime. At Bing, we use technology as a tool. We use it as a research and reference tool when a book on the subject is unavailable. We use it for documentation and observation. And we may use it to record play for educational purposes. Because different types of technology are typically available in most homes, these days we also provide keyboards, phones and calculators to use as props in play.
Even though we live in the heart of Silicon Valley, where the latest technologies are being developed, it is important for parents to not feel pressured to adopt the latest device or app for their child too soon. The adults in Silicon Valley may be the early adopters of technology, but we don’t want our children to be. When it comes time for children to use tech tools, they are very intuitive and will easily adopt the technology. For young children 2–5 years of age, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than an hour a day of media, and suggests shared use as well. Play still remains the optimal activity for young children. If you want children to develop skills for the 21st century, let them play now! It is through play that children learn to collaborate and innovate, and these will remain essential skills for the future.

This report presents the results of a nationally representative, probability-based online survey of 1,454 parents of children aged 8 or younger, conducted from Jan. 20, 2017, to Feb. 10, 2017. Overall the report found:
  1. Mobile use has become nearly universal. The proportion of homes with a mobile device went from 52 percent in 2011 to 98 percent in 2017.
  2. The digital divide has narrowed, but remains an issue. Among lower-income households (annual income below $30,000), 42 percent had high-speed internet in 2011, and 74 percent in 2017. Among higher-income households (annual income above $75,000), 92 percent had high-speed internet in 2011, and 96 percent in 2017.
  3. A third of all screen time is mobile. Among children 0–8 years of age, in 2017 the proportion of total screen time that is mobile was 35 percent—up from 4 percent in 2011. Other screen time includes TV, DVDs/videotapes, computers and video games.
  4. Contrary to recommendations from pediatricians, many children use media shortly before bedtime, and many families leave the TV on in the background most of the time.
  5. On average, children from lower-income families spend an hour and 39 minutes moren time with screen media each day than children from higher-income families.
  6. The amount of time children spend reading has held steady since 2011, but many children under 2 are not read to regularly.
  7. Parents are concerned about the amount of violence, sexual content and advertising in media, but they are optimistic about the use of media for learning and supporting creativity.
  8. Pediatricians have reached only one in five parents with their recommendations about children’s media use, and have been more successful in reaching white, higher-income and more educated parents.
  9. Several cutting-edge technologies, including virtual reality, voice-activated assistants and internet-connected toys, are making their first appearances in children’s homes.
  10. Mobile media time has tripled—again. Among children 0–8 years of age, the average amount of time spent on mobile devices per day was 48 minutes in 2017, up from 5 minutes in 2011.
  • Make your own family media use plan. Media should work for you and your own family values and parenting style.
  • Treat media as you would any other environment in your child’s life. Set limits: Children need and expect them.
  • Set limits and encourage playtime. Unstructured and offline play stimulates creativity. Make unplugged time a daily priority, especially for very young children. Media use, like other activities, should have reasonable limits.
  • Screen time shouldn’t always be alone time. Co-view, co-play, co-engage with your children when they are using screens—it encourages social interactions, bonding and learning.
  • Be a good role model. Teach and model kindness and good manners online. Because children are great mimics, limit your own media use.
  • Know the value of face-to-face time communications. Very young children learn best through two-way communi- cation. Engaging in back-and-forth “talk time” is critical for language develop- ment.
  • Limit digital media for your youngest family members. Avoid digital media for toddlers younger than 18 to 24 months other than video chatting.
  • Create tech-free zones. Keep family mealtimes, other family and social gatherings, and children’s bedrooms screen free. Turn off televisions that you aren’t watching.
  • Don’t use technology as an emotional pacifier. Children need to be taught how to identify and handle strong emotions, come up with activities to manage boredom, or calm down through breathing, talking about ways to solve the problem, and finding other strategies for channeling emotions.
  • Apps for children—do your homework. More than 80,000 apps are labeled educational, but little research has demonstrated their actual quality. Look to for reviews about age-appropriate apps, games and programs to guide you.