Mobile devices are soaring in popularity among young children, according to a new study from Common Sense Media. Today, 42 percent of kids age 8 or younger have their own tablet device, up from just 7 percent in 2013, according to the report.
The increase in the use of mobile devices among kids mirrors the growth of small screens in American homes.
After surveying more than 1,400 parents, the report found that the number of children living in a home with some type of mobile device jumped from 52 percent in 2011 to 98 percent in 2017. These mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets, are now just as common as televisions.
Media consumption has become such a large part of children’s lives that “understanding which media activities children are engaged in, for how long, and in what context is essential knowledge for those who are working to support children’s healthy development,” according to the report.
Here are some other key highlights from the survey:
■ Overall, children are consuming about the same amount of media, but the length of time that kids spend on mobile devices has tripled since 2013. In 2011, according to the report, children averaged five minutes a day on mobile devices. That jumped to 15 minutes a day in 2013 to 48 minutes a day in 2017.
■ In 2011, less than 1 percent of children 8 and under had their own tablet device.
■ Nearly half of children 8 and under (49 percent) “often or sometimes” use screens in the hour before bedtime, a practice that many pediatricians frown upon.
■ On average, children 8 and under from lower-income homes spend 3 hours, 29 minutes with screens daily. In middle-income homes, the duration drops to 2 hours and 25 minutes, while in higher income homes the number drops further still to 1 hour, 50 minutes.
Whether it’s texting, mobile banking, hailing a car, or even turning on the lights in a home, mobile devices have become an intrinsic part of our daily lives.
“Our society has become one where activities of daily living have migrated onto the mobile device,” said David Richard Gerzof, an Emerson College communication studies professor. “In order for an adult to successfully navigate society easily at this point the smart device has almost become a necessity.”
The growth in mobile devices can be traced back to several societal changes, he added. As technology has advanced and become less expensive, it has become easier to have one or several mobile devices in the home.
Meanwhile, mobile devices are easier for children to navigate than televisions. iPads aren’t bolted to the wall, nor do apps for small children require reading skills. Tablets also don’t include a remote that a parent can take away when it’s time to go to bed.
“They know how to turn these devices on, how to access them, how to surf them, and sites like YouTube have made them very easily accessible to younger children,” Richard Gerzof said.
Despite the shift in technologies, researchers still lack a definitive idea of how mobile devices affect children in the long term, said Judy Beal, professor and dean of the School of Nursing and Health Sciences at Simmons College.
“We really don’t have any research on this,” said Beal. “But some of the concerns that have been raised by providers, pediatricians, and pediatric nurses, and I see it in my own grandchildren, is that we use them to distract children during car rides, eating out. So is that detrimental to a child’s ability to self regulate?”
Darcie Tuite, a mother of four, said that she and her husband have tried to limit their children’s exposure to technology in general.
“We just like to encourage our kids to read and to play,” she said.
But many parents find that limiting screen time is a daily struggle, one that can wear down even the most conscientious grown ups.
Richard Gerzof and Beal agreed that in light of this new report, parents need to be even more vigilant about what children are watching on their devices.
“They have much more diverse content that they can access with much less regulation. On television you have the [Federal Communications Commission],” Richard Gerzof said. “It’s something parents need to be aware of and either control or speak to their children about.”
Tuite is realistic about the fact that her children will be using mobile devices when they get older, but for now, she hopes they can enjoy their childhood without that distraction.
“I’m sure they’ll use that enough when they’re teenagers so we may as well appreciate the time we have now,” she said. “We try to just let kids be kids.”