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Kids Increase Their Media Consumption, But Many Mysteries Remain

Kicking Television
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“The youngsters continue to consume more and more media than we ever did, and it’s increasingly electronic.”

I wrote this placeholder sentence fully anticipating that the study I’d just uncovered online was going to tell me about amazing new trends in smartphone usage and increased immersion in laptop computers.

But it turns out that the major driver of media consumption among kids isn’t the nearly ubiquitous computer, but the truly ubiquitous television. Or, rather, television programming.

I should have realized it, because I next hunkered down for many hours to watch the NFL playoffs. And while the entire family enjoyed the games together (especially the exciting Saints-Vikings contest), it turns out that parenting styles drive a lot of kids’ information consumption habits. I felt a guilt trip coming on.

Hey, even good parents like the playoffs!

But the message is clear — parents make a difference. For instance, the Kaiser Foundation study of media consumption among 8- to 18-year-olds found that major drivers of excess media consumption were:

  • a television in a child’s bedroom
  • a television that’s left on as an ambient presence
  • a lack of rules about time spent in front of screens

Television continues to be the dominant form of media consumed. Even with information-capable devices, television programming does well, with shifts to DVRs, cell phones, and laptops grabbing new spots in kids’ lives. In fact, live TV watching is down 25 minutes on average since the prior iteration of this study (2004), with viewing on DVDs, time-shifted TV, and other sources more than making it up.

So the computers are there, nibbling away at the edges. Cell phone use among kids  jumped from 39% to 66% between 2004 and 2009, and MP3/iPod ownership surged from 18% to 76% as well.

On the computer, kids are spending most of their time using social networking sites.

Of course, print takes a drubbing, with books being the only printed media that’s received more use (up from 23 minutes per day in 2004 to 25 minutes in 2009). Magazines usage fell from 14 to 9 minutes per day, and newspapers fell from 6 minutes to 3 minutes per day.

One part of the Kaiser study focused on the well-being of young media consumers, and finds that — well, what it finds is downright confusing, as most of these cause-effect inferences are. USA Today does a nice job of teasing out the difficulties,  which include:

  • Are kids who use more media less happy because of it, or are less happy kids more likely to use media?
  • While isolation may come with media use, kids who use more media say they have more friends
  • While a sedentary lifestyle might come from using more media, kids who use more media say they exercise more

It’s really hard to figure out the effects of media consumption. But one slide caught my eye in the Kaiser set and set me to wondering — it was the one portraying differences between ethnic groups. Look at these differences in media exposure per day by ethnicity (using Kaiser’s ethnicity terms):

  • White kids — 8 hours 36 minutes
  • Black kids — 12 hours 59 minutes
  • Hispanic kids — 13 hours 0 minutes

The survey also asked about the parents’ educational attainment, and the full report reveals two consistent trends:

  1. Parents with “some college” had kids who consumed electronic media at the highest rates, print at the lowest rates
  2. Parents with “college+” had kids who consumed electronic media at the lowest rates and print at the highest rates
  3. Parents with “no college” had kids who consumed electronic more than “college+” kids and less than “some college” kids, and were similarly mid-tier for print

I guess what surprises me most about this study is that socioeconomic status wasn’t teased out. I’ll wager that the two items above mean that richer kids consume less media, have more social advantages, have more scheduled physical activities, and have more parental oversight. The authors talk about generational differences, but I think there’s a more important socioeconomic reality here that the Kaiser folks didn’t probe sufficiently.

While all media consumption is pretty passive, television is very passive. That passivity may matter.

Overall, it’s a good study to look over and understand, and the trending is really interesting, but for scholarly publishers, the results need to be taken with a grain of salt. Our audiences fall into the “college+” tier. While their parents are moving to electronic as a productivity enhancer, the kids are adopting it a bit more guardedly than other groups. And they’ll be all the more media-savvy for it.

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About Kent Anderson

I am the Publisher at AAAS/Science. Previously, I have worked as CEO/Publisher of the STRIATUS/JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Discussion

5 thoughts on “Kids Increase Their Media Consumption, But Many Mysteries Remain

  1. Until we know the fine-grained detail of the exact types of media viewed, and the ways in which it is viewed (often just recalling that you usually have the TV on in a corner of the living room, with no-one really watching it, is classed by researchers as “viewing”), such research seems to give a rather fuzzy picture. As with most such studies, I’m still left wanting a far more precise picture of how high-quality content is found, how it’s viewed in a quality manner, who it is that gets to engage with such content each week (and do they do it in a sustained way over a year?). And then we shouldn’t forget that even intelligent people like giving their brain a rest and “going slumming” in terms of media consumption. I’d also like to see a survey of the media habits of talented kids who are genuine creative producers of new content (rather than just popcorn-munching consumers). What spurs them to get creative?

    Posted by Borrowind | Jan 27, 2010, 12:38 am
  2. Do you know where gaming fell in here – was that considered “media”? If not, it would be interesting to understand that part of the picture.

    Posted by ann michael | Jan 27, 2010, 7:57 am
    • Yes, gaming was considered electronic media. It has a huge place for boys, not as much for girls. Overall, it was about 11% of time spent. Gaming tied with music for activities on a cell phone. On computers, gaming was second (19% of time spent) to social networking (25% of time spent). Boys like gaming consoles more, girls like games on cell phones more.

      Good question. I should have put that in. Thanks!

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Jan 27, 2010, 9:12 am

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