Media play an important role in the lives of adolescents and children. Especially as they age, today’s children and adolescents are very frequently connected to each other by means of some medium such as email, instant messenger, mobile phones, and beepers. However, when other media such as television, the Internet, video games, and music are added to the list of interpersonal communication devices, children and adolescents are not merely perpetually linked but perpetually plugged in. In the US, for example, approximately 25 –33 percent of adolescents use multiple media “most of the time.” Therefore, the amount of media to which children are exposed may be increasing even faster than the sheer hours spent with media. This trend seems to be occurring in both the US and in Europe (Valkenburg & Peter 2007); little evidence exists that children and adolescents in less affluent countries are as media-saturated.
As Andreason (2001) has pointed out, the continual convergence of media technology, such as accessing television programs from a computer screen or using a mobile phone to retrieve email messages, makes defining categories of media somewhat complicated. Therefore, researchers interested in children’s media use sometimes refer to computers, television, videos, and DVD use simply as “screen time.” In a given day, 61 percent of children under 1 year old spend time with television or videos and DVDs. By the time children are 2 –3 years old, 88 percent spend time in front of a screen daily (Kaiser Family Foundation 2006). Among older children, as they gain facility with media and parent controls decline, media use increases. Screen time for 8 –10 year olds averages 5 hours per day; 11–14 year olds spend approximately 5 1/2 hours with a screen and 15 –18 year olds slightly less (Kaiser Family Foundation 2005). These patterns are relatively consistent in the US and in Europe (Valkenburg & Janssen 1999).
Television still occupies the largest proportion of time spent with media for children in every age group. With a greater than 90 percent saturation rate in countries ranging from Finland to Jordan to Tunisia (World in Figures 2006), many children live in a home with a television, making it easily accessible for children of most income levels, especially in North America and Europe. Based on research conducted in the US, children below the age of 1 watch approximately an hour of television daily, whereas children aged 2 – 6 watch approximately 1 1/2 hours (Kaiser Family Foundation 2006). Children aged 8 –14 watch approximately 3 hours; however, by the time children hit 15, viewing decreases to approximately 2 1/2 hours of television per day (Kaiser Family Foundation 2005).
Demographic variables other than the age of the child also seem to affect the amount of time spent watching television. For example, parents with higher levels of education tend to have children who watch less television. In addition, black children watch somewhat more television (approximately 4 hours per day) than either Latino children (approximately 3 1/2 hours) or white children (approximately 2 3/4 hours). Ultimately, however, the strongest predictor of children’s television use seems to be parents’ own use of the medium (Kaiser Family Foundation 2005). Parents who watch more television consequently have children who watch more.
In terms of content preferences, approximately half of the children aged between 1 and 6 watch both educational and entertainment children’s programs. Among preschoolers, approximately 15 percent watch adult shows at least some of the time. However, as children enter middle childhood, 39 percent of the 8 –10 year olds watch adult shows such as situation comedies. As they begin to watch more adult programs, they watch fewer educational programs, with 47 percent of the 8 –10 year olds watching educational programs but only 21 percent of the 11–14 year olds doing so. Instead, older children seem to prefer reality shows, dramas, and movies. Moreover, older children in particular appear to shift at least some of their screen time to computers (Kaiser Family Foundation 2005).
The greatest difference in content preference appears to be between boys and girls, rather than between European and American children. For example, boys in both the Netherlands and the US prefer programs that contain action and violence; whereas girls in both the Netherlands and the US prefer programs that they deem comprehensible (Valkenburg & Janssen 1999). In fact, the most notable finding in their cross-cultural study was that US and Dutch children were remarkably similar in their likes and dislikes regarding entertainment programs.
Although children’s computer use is on the rise, there remains considerable variation in computer ownership worldwide. For example, Switzerland has the highest rate of ownership, with 71 computers for every 100 persons, 66 for every 100 in the US, and only 20 per 100 in Spain. Rates in Africa and some parts of Asia are unknown, although thought to be significantly lower (World in Figures 2006).
Among children, approximately 75 percent of the US children under the age of 6 have a computer in the home, with approximately 30 percent having high-speed Internet access (Kaiser Family Foundation 2006). There is limited information available about what these very young children do with their computer time; however, the available evidence suggests that many preschoolers visit websites for children; whereas some also spend time on the computer playing games. It appears that it is not until children are somewhat older that they use computers to communicate with their friends, do homework, and listen to music.
Children between the ages of 8 –10 spend approximately 40 minutes per day on a computer and half of that time is spent playing computer games (Kaiser Family Foundation 2005). They also visit websites, but the time spent in other activities such as chat and email is negligible (< 3 minutes). As they age, the time spent on a computer increases and most of that increase results from increased time communicating via a computer. For example, 11–14 year olds spend an average of an hour a day on a computer, and although they still play almost 20 minutes of computer games, they now spend approximately 30 minutes communicating using email, chat, or instant messenger; whereas 5 –18 year olds spend nearly 30 minutes using instant messenger, another 10 minutes in chatrooms or using email, and almost 20 minutes visiting various websites (Kaiser Family Foundation 2005).
Gender differences exist as well. Boys play more computer games (22 minutes per day to girls’ 15 minutes), whereas girls spend more time visiting websites (16 minutes to boys’ 12 minutes). Girls are also more likely than boys to spend time using computers to communicate (Kaiser Family Foundation 2005).
There are also differences between children in various countries. For example, although Internet access and use is on the rise across Europe, children in the US have somewhat higher access rates (Valkenburg & Soeters 2001) than children in the Netherlands. In addition, differences exist within Europe regarding parents’ attitudes towards computer and Internet use for their children. Some 81 percent of German parents think that the most positive impact of the Internet for their children has been its effect on children’s eventual ability to enter the job market; parents in the UK (73 percent) are more likely to state that the Internet has had a favorable effect on their children’s homework. Lastly, parents in France (71 percent) are more likely to value the impact of the Internet on their children’s interest in hobbies.
In both the US and in Europe, both computer access and Internet access are positively associated with parental income (Livingstone & Bovill 1999). Consistent with this trend, children in less affluent countries, such as Rwanda, Libya, and Nigeria have consistently lagged far behind in their access to computers and the Internet. As a result, programs such as OLPC (one laptop per child), a nonprofit, UN-backed organization, have delivered millions of cheap wind-up computers to these countries to bring information technology to communities with no electricity (The Times 2007).
Console and Hand-Held Video Game Use
In the US, only 11 percent of children under the age of 6 play video games on an average day and those children play for slightly less than an hour (Kaiser Family Foundation 2006). However, by the time children reach 8 –10 years of age, 59 percent play some video game daily. Following a pattern similar to their television exposure, video game play then begins to decrease in late childhood. By the time children are 15 –18, only 39 percent play a video game daily, although when computer games are included, a total of 65 percent of the 8 –10 year olds and 49 percent of the 15 –18 year olds play some type on interactive game (Kaiser Family Foundation 2005).
Children also differ in their console and hand-held game play by sex, by race, and by education of the parent. For example, more boys than girls play console or hand-held video games every day (63 vs 40 percent). Furthermore, boys tend to prefer action games whereas girls prefer fantasy or puzzle games (Buchman & Funk 1996). African-American children spend significantly more time playing video games (1 hour 26 minutes) than Hispanic children (1 hour 10 minutes) and than white children (1 hour 3 minutes). Differences also exist based on the education of the parent. Interestingly, children whose parents attended but did not complete college spend significantly less time playing video games than children of parents who either completed high school or who obtained college degrees (Kaiser Family Foundation 2005).
Use of Other Media
Although mobile phone use is on the rise worldwide (World in Figures 2006), the majority of the research looks at adults or simply overall use. However, a recent study conducted in New Zealand suggests that children’s use of mobile phones is also increasing (Census at School 2005). The largest increase was for 9 year olds who were the youngest children surveyed. Among this age group, the number of children who owned their own mobile phone increased by 120 percent since 2003. Among 14 year olds, 84 percent own their own mobile phones. Although parents may give their children mobile phones to use in an emergency, it seems unlikely that use is limited to that. The primary complaint parents have about their children’s mobile phone use is large mobile phone bills.
Children as young as 1 year old spend time listening to music on the radio, on CDs, tapes, and MP3 players. In fact, 0 –1 year olds spend slightly more time (1 hour 4 minutes) listening to music than 2 –3 year olds (1 hour) and than 4 – 6 year olds (53 minutes; Kaiser Family Foundation 2006). 8 –10 year olds spend almost an hour (59 minutes) daily, and that length of time increases as children enter their teen years. 11–14 year olds listen to 1 hour 42 minutes daily and 15 –18 year olds 2 hours 24 minutes daily (Kaiser Family Foundation 2005).
- Andreason, M. (2001). Evolution in the family’s use of television: An overview. In J. Bryant & A. J. Bryant (eds.), Television and the American family. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 3 –32.
- Buchman, D. D., & Funk, J. B. (1996). Video and computer games in the 90s: Children’s time commitment and game preference. Children Today, 24, 12 –16.
- Census at School (2005). 33,000 children have their say. At https://new.censusatschool.org.nz/2005/10/21/33000-children-have-their-say/.
- Jordan, A. B. (1998). The 1998 state of children’s television report: Programming for children over broadcast and cable television (Report 23). Philadelphia, PA: Annenberg Public Policy Center, University of Pennsylvania.
- Kaiser Family Foundation (2005). Generation M: Media in the lives of 8 –18 year olds. Menlo Park, CA: Authors.
- Kaiser Family Foundation (2006). The media family: Electronic media in the lives of infants, toddlers, preschoolers and their parents. Menlo Park, CA: Authors.
- Livingstone, S. & Bovill, M. (1999). Young people, new people: Report of the research project young people, and the changing media environment. London: London School of Economics and Political Science.
- The Times (2007). Wind-up computers set for third world children, February 18. At www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,252605,00.html, accessed September 25, 2007.
- Valkenburg, P. M., & Janssen, S. C. (1999). What do children value in entertainment programs? A cross-cultural investigation. Journal of Communication, 26, 3 –21.
- Valkenburg, P. M., & Soeters, K. (2001). Children’s positive and negative experiences with the Internet: An exploratory survey study. Communication Research, 28, 653 – 676.
- Valkenburg, P. M., & Peter, J. (2007). Preadolescents’ and adolescents’ online communication and their closeness to friends. Developmental Psychology, 43, 267–277.
- World in Figures (2006). London: The Economist.
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