How Families Are Using Educational Media at Home

Parents of children between the ages of 2 and 4 say more than three-quarters of their children’s media use is educational. Yet the media diet for 5 to 10-year-olds slides steeply toward junk food, their parents say. These are the findings of a new survey by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center. The report recommends paying closer attention to creating high-interest educational media for older children and expanding efforts to help families choose quality media products. {photo_2}

Last night in the bathtub my 4-year-old son repeatedly sent a boat out to rescue his imaginary friend, “Home Mifflin.” Home Mifflin appears to be his understanding of the name of educational publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, a name frequently heard between shows on PBS Kids. When I stopped laughing into my sleeve, I realized his play was an example of a finding in the new report.

Like many other parents—78 percent of those surveyed—I’ve seen my son incorporate pieces of his media diet into his imaginative play. (He also gives flu shots like they did on “Sid the Science Kid.”) Even more families (87 percent) report their kids want to talk about something they’ve seen. Older children are more likely to work on a project, ask questions, or even teach their parents something new based on educational media, according to the parents surveyed. The report is based on a nationally representative survey of more than 1,500 parents of children ages 2 to 10, including an oversample of black and Latino parents.

There’s plenty of good news here for parents and media developers alike. The survey responses indicate that by parents’ own standards, children are spending about half their screen time on educational media. The survey defined “educational” as “good for your child’s learning or growth, or that teaches some type of lesson, such as an academic or social skill.” Educational media use is highest between the ages of 2 and 4, when educational television programs make up the bulk of their “media diet.”

How can we stimulate the creation of more content specifically designed for this older audience—content they will find engaging and entertaining at the same time that it is educational?

“Parents are saying kids have learned a lot from the educational media they have used,” said report author Vicky Rideout. “Many kids are taking what they’ve learned into their everyday lives.”

And parents across race and class lines are in rough agreement about what content is and is not educational.  Parents were asked to rank popular TV shows and games on a scale from “very educational” to “not at all educational.”  Not surprisingly, 96 percent of parents surveyed considered “Sesame Street” to be “very” or “somewhat” educational, while only 9 percent thought the same of “SpongeBob SquarePants.” Though parents of families with incomes under $50,000 appeared to take a slightly broader view of what content could be educational, the differences were not pronounced.

But not all the news is so encouraging. While preschoolers spend more than one hour a day using media their parents consider educational, school-aged children use media in ways that they are less likely to promote learning, at least according to their parents. After age 5, children’s total media time rises by one hour (from about 1.5 to 2.5 hours) but the proportion of media time spent on educational media drops from 78 percent to 27 percent. “The decline was so deep it disturbed me,” Rideout said.

The reasons for this worrisome decline aren’t fully understood, but the numbers do suggest there there’s less high quality educational media out their for older children. The report asks, “How can we stimulate the creation of more content specifically designed for this older audience—content they will find engaging and entertaining at the same time that it is educational?”

There may not be enough quality educational content available for older children, but with more than 20,000 apps touted as educational out there, choosing ones that actually help children learn can be tough. More than half of parents surveyed said they’d like more guidance in finding high-quality educational media for their children. Latino parents—the least likely to say their children were using media they considered educational—were more likely than parents as a whole to say they would like expert guidance in finding media to support their children’s learning. Low-income and less-educated parents were also more likely to say they wanted more help.

“Sometimes parents get too focused on external markers saying, ‘educational,’ which may lead them to flashcard apps,” said Devorah Heitner, who writes about raising children in the age of digital media and advises parents and schools. “Ideally media is not just passive; it is also something that gives kids a chance to create.”

“You’re looking for apps that help kids create, versus apps that are one step above a worksheet,” concurred Michael Robb, director of education and research at the Fred Rogers Center. “I think using technology to create is great even for younger ages.” Using high-quality apps, even preschoolers can draw, take photos, and tell stories.

But finding the good stuff is still a challenge. Common Sense Media is a nonprofit organization that rates children’s media products based on age appropriateness and learning value. While some savvy parents know how to use Common Sense Media’s ratings to find good apps, “more parents don’t know about it,” said Rideout. “Funders should be helping parents find out about this, especially low-income, Hispanic-Latino parents.”

Robb said parents looking for guidance on how to use technology with young children should check out the key messages from the Fred Rogers Center’s joint position statement with the National Association of Early Childhood Educators (NAEYC) on technology and interactive media in early childhood programs. The statement finds that when used in ways that are appropriate for each child’s age and developmental stage, technology and interactive media have tremendous potential to nurture early learning and development. We also reccomend:

  • Limitations on the use of technology and media when appropriate. We encourage parents and teachers to carefully consider the screen time recommendations from public health organizations for children from birth through age 5.
  • Special considerations on the use of technology with infants and toddlers, for example discouraging passive and non-interactive uses of media for kids age 2 to 5.
  • Attention to digital citizenship and equitable access. Parents and teachers should help young children learn to ask questions and think critically about the technologies and media they use.

The Center also points to the need for onging professional development and more research in this area. We’ve also compiled these examples of how to use technology tools and interactive media in age-appropriate, intentional ways. And our blog is full of helpful ideas for parents trying to figure it all out.

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