Why Teens and Tweens Are Viewing Screens

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As we’ve demonstrated in our own study, adolescents spend a lot of time staring at screens, whether it be because they are watching Netflix, browsing the Internet, playing video games, or texting. We even captured the statistics for these habits across multiple US cities!

Though this has been a reality for quite some time, it seems that the pandemic has resulted in tweens and teens dedicating even more time to these things than usual. 

In this article, we will dive into what kids are doing on their screens and what their preferences are when it comes to forms of entertainment using their a wide array of tech devices. 

Understanding How Kids Use Media 

It is important to understand how kids and teens use media so that proper boundaries can be established, especially due to the outsized role of media in kids’ lives throughout the pandemic and even beyond it.

This will also allow for further research on how media can impact adolescents' mental, physical and emotional development. Since kids are spending so much time immersed in the media, ensuring digital spaces are safe and healthy should be pivotal. This reality presents a lot of opportunities for parents, caregivers, educators, and policymakers. 

How Much Time Do Kids Spend Looking at Screens? 

The research that was conducted by the nonprofit Common Sense Media showed that screen time rose by 17% between 2019 and 2021.  

Screen time increased by nearly 50 minutes per day for 8 to 12-year-olds (tweens) to five hours and 33 minutes per day, and by over an hour and 15 minutes for teenagers, up to around eight hours and 39 minutes per day. This time does not account for screen time in class or for schoolwork. 

Not counting digital instruction, teens and tweens spent a comparable amount of time staring at screens as they would spend working a part-time or a full-time job. Educators and children's health experts stress that students need support to prevent overuse of technology that could result in unhealthy behaviors, especially in the classroom. 

Teachers argue that the effects of heightened digital exposure are obvious. In a national survey by the EdWeek Research Center in February 2021, 88 percent of educators reported that students' learning challenges rose with their increased screen time, in their experience. Furthermore, 80 percent of educators said student behavior worsened as their screen time did. 

Is High Screen Time Good or Bad for Adolescents? 

Despite what some may say, research suggests that what kids do with their screen time is a better predictor of positive and negative outcomes than the total amount of hours spent on a device.  Listening to a podcast, or completing an assignment on Google Docs, is not going to bring about the same results as watching hours of TikTok videos or playing violent video games.  

In fact, experts say that lumping together different types of screen time is problematic.  Studies don't typically analyze interactions between school and out-of-school screen time, nor do they typically analyze the effects of educational content that can be advantageous to kids. For example, researchers at the University of Washington found that preschoolers’ behavior problems improved when parents replaced violent content with educational and positive social content, even without reducing the child’s screen time. 

The most important thing is to help children be mindful of the physical, mental, and emotional effects of how they use their screen time. Additionally, students can be taught healthy technology behaviors, the same way they are taught about classroom behaviors and social norms. 

How Teens and Tweens Use Their Time Online 

The study conducted by Common Sense Media revealed that most teens would choose YouTube as the site they would not want to live without. More specifically, out of the 79% of 13-18-year-olds that use social media and watch online videos (at least once a week), 32% of them would choose YouTube as the as the most important outlet for them. More than six in ten tweens and teens watch online videos and they prefer to watch them "a lot." The runner ups were Snapchat (20%), TikTok (13%), Instagram (13%), Discord (6%), Facebook (6%), Twitter (3%), Pinterest (2%), Reddit (2%), and Tumblr (1%).  

Another reason why teens and tweens are using the Internet/viewing screens is because of podcasts. In fact, nearly half (46%) of all 13 to 18-year-olds have listened to them. One in five say they do at least once a week. Of those reported, Twenty-two percent of teens say they enjoy listening to podcasts "a lot" or "somewhat." 

Regarding new media technologies, one in six tweens and teens now own a virtual reality headset in the home. 

Are Kids Still Watching Television? 

Watching television, either through broadcast, cable, or streaming services continues to be a popular activity for teens and tweens alike. Viewing takes place on TV sets, laptops, tablets, and phones. Despite the popularity of social media and other media activities, television takes up the most time in young people's lives.  
Nearly two out of three tweens (65%) and almost half of teens (49%) watch TV every day. The overall statistics from the study revealed a decline in interest in television as children grew from tweens to teens. Only one in four (27%) of teens say they enjoyed watching television "a lot" compared to (48%). Teenagers enjoyed watching online videos more (62%) and overall, the interest in television amongst teens has been trending down over the past two years.

Do Adolescents Prefer Television or Online Videos More? 

The surveys conducted throughout the study exhibited that online videos such as YouTube and TikTok were the most enjoyed media activity amongst young people. 61% of tweens and 62% of teens said they enjoyed watching videos online "a lot." These numbers were much higher than any of the other media activities discussed in the survey. 

Are Video Games Still Popular? 

 Video games are still an enjoyable pastime for adolescents, but the disparity lies mostly with gender. The study does not depict a noticeable change in the amount of time video games are played or the amount of video game consoles or portable players in a household (79% have one).

The study looked at a variety of different types of games, ranging from mobile games, computer games, and games played on a video game player such as a console or portable player. Tweens spent slightly more time playing these types of games than teens did.  

The substantial difference was between video game habits among boys and girls. Among all 8 to 18-year-olds, boys spend an average of 2:20 a day playing video games, whereas girls typically spend less than an hour (0:54.) 

Is Media Usage Changing Within Households?

The study by Common Sense Media stated that there was no obvious increase in the number of computers, tablets, or video game players during the pandemic. Despite people working remotely and children attending school virtually, ownership of these types of devices remained steady. 

One major increase, however, is the rise in subscription services such as Netflix and Hulu. These numbers soared from 72% in 2019 to 84% in 2021. In addition to this, cable and satellite subscriptions declined during these years, from 41% to 32% of families with cable, and from 21% to 13% of families with satellite. 

How Will Screen Time Affect the Future of Media?

The trends that are already apparent suggest that the future of media might go beyond online videos and social platforms. With today's technology, it is likely that screen time and Internet usage will continue to increase due to innovations such as virtual reality and the metaverse. Therefore, it is important to understand how and why different media are being used, as well as the positive and negative outcomes of their usage. This will allow relevant boundaries to be enforced as well as proper monitoring to take place when it is needed. 

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