Today, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and Sesame Workshop are releasing a new report entitled Always Connected. The report is a synthesis of data from seven studies and presents a comprehensive look at young children’s media use over the past five years. As someone who is interested in research methodology, and as one of the authors, the report has encouraged me to think more carefully about the way we define and measure media use.
Measurement of media use taps into questions about A) the use of a particular device or technology (e.g. TV, Computer, MP3 Player), B) the type of media activity one is experiencing (e.g. watching video, playing games, emailing), C) the quality and type of content (e.g. educational narrative, game show, puzzle game) and D) context (e.g. who else is with you and where are you engaged in a particular activity). The surveys in the report we reviewed generally focused on A and B.
What was challenging in interpreting or capturing media time use in these studies was that in some cases the survey questions were organized around time spent with a particular technology or platform and in some cases the questions were organized around time spent engaged in a particular media activity and sometimes both. Currently, some particular technologies or platforms provide one basic activity and some provide an array of activities. And now, most activities can be done on a variety of technological platforms. The distinction between these two will continue to challenge researchers who want to capture both but do not want to have extremely long and convoluted questionnaires (e.g. how much time does your child spend in a given day reading books or magazines only on an eReader like on a Kindle or Nook but not in paper form book and not on the Internet?).
Even as we continue to see more and more media convergence, the distinction between the use of a particular technological device versus a particular activity that can be done across multiple devices will likely still be important because both may matter for different reasons. Certainly, we need to know about availability of technology in children’s homes and the kinds of technology children are particularly interested and engaged in if we are going to be creating educational interventions using these technologies. Perhaps a game on an iPad is inherently more interesting that than very same game on a website but before we argue for developing educational iPad apps, we need to have a better sense of actual home ownership and time use among children. The cost of various technologies might make some out of the reach for many, and a real understanding of what actually is available is still important until we have near universal ownership of each technology.
Activity is important because it provides a better foray into understanding the motivations behind media use. Knowing that a child uses the Internet mostly to Skype with a relative in another state versus using the Web to engage in solitary game play, gives us a much better sense of what a child is doing and may be getting from the experience than just knowing that he or she is using the Internet. Different activities may affect the degree to which children are emotionally, physically, cognitively and social influenced by the experience.
And of course, content and context are going to continue to be important as most research has found that such factors are strong drivers of media effects. The experience of playing a “shoot em up” game on a mobile device where the goal is to blow up as many enemies as possible while your older sibling is goading you on at the mall is going to have a different impact on you than a game on that same mobile device where the goal is to “blast” as many words as possible that begin have the same phoneme as a target word while you cuddle by your mother’s side on the couch. While both are mobile target practice games, the experiences of each are very different.
Marshall McLuhan’s well-known statement “the medium is the message” surely would allow for easier data collection. But unfortunately, the media and technology world has become a lot more complicated over the past 50 years allowing for a whole host of new experiences within each medium and across media. More and more content is available and mobile devices makes contexts of use even more varied. It’s going to be increasingly difficult to ask parents to estimate off the top of their head, as most phone surveys ask people to do, how much their child spends with particular media doing particular activities. What might be the solution?
Perhaps diary data will give us the most comprehensive way to capture use across all four factors. Asking parents to fill out daily logs about their children’s activities that include time and also ask for specifics surrounding the what media are being used, what they are being used for, with whom and under what conditions will allow us to have a much more complete look at media use. This would also allow us to cut the data in different ways so that we can get accurate time estimates by what we deem important.
The studies presented in Always Connected shed a great light on this explosion in media use but also illuminate the importance of asking the right questions so that we can adequately capture children’s full experience with all of these new technologies, activities, content and contexts.
Jennifer Kotler is the Assistant Vice President of Domestic Research at Sesame Workshop. She holds a Ph.D. in Child Development from the University of Texas at Austin.