Sorry Video Games: TV Still Reigns as Kids' Favorite Media

Mobile phones, the Internet, and video games might be growing in popularity with kids, but according to one report, the trusty television is still the predominant media of choice.

“Even as technology evolves and young children increasingly turn to games and mobile media, they still love television best.” The statement comes from "Always Connected," a recent report from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, which reviewed seven recent studies (some of them never before released), and provides a comprehensive look at the implications of media exposure and use.

Kids age 8-10 watch 3.5 hours of television everyday. "Although computer and Internet use are rising, they are still just a fraction of children’s overall media use, and nowhere near the amount of time spent with television."

In one example illustrated in the report, an 8-year-old named Gabriela watches Disney shows after school for 45 minutes, works on her homework while watching "Oprah," and after dinner, watches the Discovery Channel and other shows with her parents, easily adding up to three or more hours per day.

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I asked the authors of the study, Dr. Lori Takeuchi, Dr. Jennifer Kotler, along with the center's executive director Dr. Michael Levine, some questions to help put the study into context.

Q. What's the implication of children ages 8-10 spending 3.5 hours watching TV everyday? How is watching television different from playing games online, whether on a laptop or on a mobile device?

A. It depends. The jury is still largely out about whether interactive game play is better than TV or vice versa. One could argue that the interactivity that these newer formats offer are "better" for kids than the lean-back nature of TV watching. Research has shown that both TV and video can provide experiences that are educational as well as harmful depending on the kind of content to which children have been exposed.

Kids are certainly better off watching high-quality, educational TV shows than playing video games that are either age inappropriate or which offer no educational value. The research on the educational benefits of video games is beginning to build, but risks are still well described in the research literature, especially around violent content. Intriguingly even some of the offensive play mechanics associated with some video games may be able to be turned around if placed in the right context. Recent research by neuroscientists such as Dr. Daphne Bevalier at the University of Rochester has shown that playing first-person shooter games can improve players' number sense (and consequently mathematical achievement). Others have shown that online multi-player games like World of Warcraft can improve teamwork and collaboration skills. And a study by the Mayo Clinic demonstrated the benefits of playing physical action games such as Dance Dance Revolution in developing healthy exercise habits for kids. Much of this research, however has been conducted on older players (teens and older), so we're not certain if the same benefits will hold true with younger children. For a good review of the research on games, learning and health habits, readers might wish to read the Center's report, Game Changer.

Q. Why do you think kids 2 - 5 years old watch more TV than 6 - 11 year olds?

A. Younger children spend more time with television for the simple reason that they spend less time in school. Younger kids haven't yet developed the cognitive and physical capacities to interact with or manipulate what are, in essence, representational worlds. Simply watching these representational worlds is easier. Another reason younger kids aren't playing video games is because parents are more closely regulating their media consumption.  They may worry more about little fingers breaking mobile devices/laptops than TV sets. Or believe that video games just aren't appropriate for their very young children.

Q. How does children's media consumption change around age 8?

A. The developmental readiness factor described above is responsive to this shift in media consumption. The new focus is also influenced by peer interactions inside schools and by parents' loosening of the controls on the more sophisticated and costly technologies that allow independent game play and early use of mobile devices.

Q. Do you think this will change once younger kids spend more time with mobile games?

In the next few years, our trends data and that of other researchers indicates that more young children will be likely spending more time with interactive media at younger ages. There will however continue to be developmental and parental factors that make it less likely to ever rival the kind of use of older children. But who knows: one day children might literally be wired for learning from birth.

Q. When we talk about kids using 8 hours of media everyday, should all media be clumped into one category?

A. No, it is useful to break out the categories of media consumption just as the Kaiser Family Foundation and the recent Cooney Center/Sesame Workshop study did. That way we have a more fine grained sense of which types of media are gaining currency and which types of media multitasking behaviors are underway. For example listening to an iPod while playing a videogame is a different experience from watching television while surfing the internet.

Q. Which specific apps or media do you recommend for parents who want to interact with kids while they're using media?

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We don't recommend specific apps that promote "coviewing" among kids and adults, but tablets such as iPads do appear to hold potential as an intergenerational learning platform given the ease with which kids and parents can mutually view and interact on them. iPad apps that are like board games look especially promising, as do electronic books that come on this format. TV console-based games such the Wii and other gesture-based systems such as the Kinect game system are also appealing to both generations. However there's a need for more games that are both educational and possess intergenerational appeal -- like Sesame Street the TV show!

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