Journal Issue: Children and Electronic Media Volume 18 Number 1 Spring 2008
Overall Media Exposure and Use
Although some early studies of children's media exposure report time devoted to each of several different media, we have located no research published before 1999 that estimates young people's “total media exposure” or that differentiates between media exposure and media use.15 Asking respondents, particularly children, to estimate their overall “media time” is almost pointless. The meaning of “media” differs from person to person, the wide and increasing array of media to which the term refers makes the task even more difficult, and the fact that young people in particular engage in a great deal of media use as a secondary, even tertiary, activity—the TV may be on as a teenager washes the dishes and argues with a sibling while listening to a PDMP through ear-pods—further impairs recall. It is more accurate to ask youngsters to report time they spend with each individual medium (Yesterday, how much time did you spend using a computer? How much time did you watch TV?). Unfortunately, however, overall “media use” is not a straightforward summation of time exposed to each individual medium. To the extent that people “use” several media at the same time, playing a video game while listening to music, the sum of the two exposure estimates will be double the amount of time spent using media. That is, while engaged in one hour of media use (playing a video game while listening to music) a youngster is exposed to two hours of media content (one hour of video game content, one of music content). The exposure-use distinction has become especially important as new media, particularly the personal computer, have increased the amount of concurrent media use as well as the rate of media multitasking among young people. In what follows, then, “media use” refers to the amount of time young people devote to all media (that is, person hours devoted to using media); “media exposure” refers to media content encountered by young people expressed in units of time (that is, hours of television exposure).16
Table 2 summarizes recent estimates of both media exposure and media use for samples of both younger and older children. Exposure to electronic media starts early and rises quickly. In 2005, children six years and younger averaged 2:24 (two hours and twenty-four minutes) daily exposure to media content. Data on concurrent media use were not collected for the birth to six-year-old samples. In 1999, however, parents reported that a national sample of two- to seven-year-olds experienced 3:30 of media exposure while engaged in 2:56 media use. Among older children and adolescents, in 2004, eight- to eighteen-year-olds reported an average of 7:50 of daily electronic media exposure, but packed all that content into just over 5:48 of media use. In other words, approximately 25 percent of the time that eight- to eighteen-year- olds were using media, they used two or more at once—a substantial increase in the proportion of time a similar sample used multiple media concurrently just five years earlier. In 1999, eight- to eighteen-year-olds engaged in media multitasking 17 percent of the time, fitting 6:45 exposure into 5:40 media use. Thus, although total media exposure increased more than an hour across the five-year span, media use remained remarkably constant (5:40 vs. 5:48). Donald Roberts, Ulla Foehr, and Victoria Rideout conjecture that a ceiling for media use may have been reached, but that the explosion of new media has led to increased exposure because of increases in the proportion of media time that young people use several media concurrently.17
Table 2 provides little support for speculation that newer media, such as computers, the Internet, and video games, are displacing such older media as television. Not only does TV viewing consume almost triple the time given to the next closest media category, but also the next closest category consists of videos and movies—arguably simply another form of “television.” In other words, exposure to a “TV screen” in one form or another accounts for more than half of all young people's electronic media exposure. Much the same pattern emerges in estimates of children's media budgets based on calculating the share of total media time each individual youth devotes to each medium, then averaging those proportions. In 1999, eight- to eighteen-year-olds devoted 51 percent of their media time to TV and to videos and movies; in 2004 the proportion was 48 percent. Thus, as table 2 indicates, although total media exposure increased substantially from 1999 to 2004, the increment was due almost completely to increases in time with video games and computers—over the five years, daily video game time went from 0:26 to 0:49, and average daily computer time increased from 0:27 to 1:02.18 Moreover, the additional exposure was almost completely due to increased use of several media simultaneously, not to displacement of older media such as television. In short, total media exposure increased, media multitasking increased, total use remained relatively constant, and there is little evidence that any medium—but especially television—is being displaced.19
We have located no estimates of the amount of time that young people spend using such new, portable media as cell phones or personal data assistants. However the Pew Internet and American Life Project reports that in 2005 two-thirds of all teenagers with cell phones (at that time 45 percent of all teens) used instant messaging (IM), with half of IM users exchanging such messages at least once daily.20
Age and Media Exposure
Exposure to each of the electronic media varies substantially according to a wide array of subgroup characteristics, and as table 2 indicates, age is one of the most important. Parent estimates of young children's exposure are less than half the total media exposure reported by older youths. There is little question that some of this difference is real.21 But a substantial part of the large difference between exposure levels reported for six- to seven-year-olds in the younger sample and for eight-year-olds in the older sample is likely due to differences in how data were gathered for the two age groups—that is, parent reports and self reports. Not only does a strong “social desirability” bias elicit conservative answers when parents are asked how much time their children devote to such activities as television viewing or video game playing, but the migration of media to children's bedrooms means that parents frequently do not know whether, when, or how much their children listen, view, or click.22 Nevertheless, with these caveats in mind, it seems clear that both television exposure and overall media exposure follow similar, age- related patterns.
Overall media exposure, pictured in figure 3, starts out low and increases fairly rapidly (to just under five hours daily) until about the time children enter preschool or kindergarten. It drops off slightly for a brief period, then climbs to a peak of just over eight hours daily at around eleven to twelve years, followed by a gradual decline (to about seven hours daily) during later adolescence. This age-related, bi-modal pattern (that is, having two distinct peaks) of exposure was noted for television some years ago and, as is also illustrated in table 3, continues to hold for that medium. Indeed, we suspect the continuing dominance of television in children's media diet is largely responsible for the current pattern for overall media exposure.23 The bi-modal pattern is generally explained as resulting from changes in children's available time— changes driven primarily by the demands of school and school-related activities. That is, among younger children, TV exposure (indeed, all media exposure) steadily increases during the first four or five years (paralleling increases in available time). At around four to six years, however, children begin school, and the more structured and to some extent television-free school environment means less time is available for media. As young children adapt to the demands of school and begin to have somewhat later bedtimes, TV viewing (and overall media exposure) climbs again. A few years later, however, the change from grade school to middle school brings with it new demands on time—longer school hours, homework, and organized after-school activities, such as sports, clubs, and jobs. The social demands of adolescence, coupled with increased mobility, also cut into media time; given a choice between hanging out with friends or watching TV, for example, a typical sixteen-year-old usually chooses the former.
Age-related exposure patterns, of course, depend on both the medium and the needs and interests associated with different age categories. For example, among older youths, exposure to audio media, which is generally synonymous with music exposure, is positively and linearly related to age. As children grow older, they are exposed to more audio media. A similar positive link exists for age and computer time. Conversely, video game playing is negatively related to age. In the case of exposure to audio media, table 2 illustrates that music listening starts out relatively low (less than an hour daily at age eight), but climbs continually from that point, to more than three hours by age eighteen.24 Such a positive relationship is not surprising. Popular music media (radio, recordings) have long ranked among adolescents' preferred media, and as digitization has made music media more portable, it has become much easier for teenagers to have music whenever they want, wherever they are. Computers follow a similar pattern, but for somewhat different reasons. Eight- through ten-year-olds report 0:37 daily of nonschool computer use; by eleven to fourteen years the average is 1:02, and among fifteen- to eighteen-year-olds average leisure-related computer time reaches 1:22. We suspect that several factors account for increased computer time among teens. As youngsters grow older they become more adept at using computers, particularly at navigating the Internet, and they find more and more sites relevant to their needs and interests. In addition, as computers take on the functions of most other media (young people use them to listen to music, watch movies and film clips, play interactive games, and read the newspaper), it is not surprising that adolescents devote more time to them. Perhaps most important, however, is the computer's emergence as a social networking device, a function that is particularly important to adolescents and to which they are increasingly devoting online attention. For example, in 2005, the Pew Internet and American Life Project reported that of the 87 percent of U.S. teens who used the Internet, more than half (55 percent) used online social networking sites, and that 55 percent had created a personal profile online.25
As noted, video game exposure is negatively related to age. Eight- through ten-year-olds spend slightly more than an hour a day playing video games (both console-based and handheld combined), but video gaming declines with age to just over half an hour among fifteen- to eighteen-year-olds, a decrease that we suspect is largely accounted for by a steady increase in the number of older youths who play no video games on any given day.
Race and Ethnicity and Media Exposure
Media exposure among young children, especially exposure to screen media such as television, videos, and movies, is related to race and ethnicity. Victoria Rideout and Elizabeth Hamel found that African American children from birth to age six spend significantly more time with television (1:18 daily) than do either Hispanic children (1:00) or white children (0:53).26 This finding largely replicates a pattern found with a slightly older sample (two- to seven-year-olds) a few years earlier, when African American children averaged 3:06 daily TV exposure, Hispanic children 2:55, and white children 2:29. With the exception of length of TV exposure, young African American and Hispanic children do not differ in their use of most other media. Young white children spend less time with videos, movies, and video games, and more time than African American children with computers. Race and ethnicity are also related to similar differences in media exposure among older youths. African American and Hispanic youths report more overall media exposure than whites (total daily media exposure is 10:10, 8:52, and 7:58 for African Americans, Hispanics, and whites, respectively). And again, as illustrated in figure 4, exposure differs depending on the medium, with screen media (television, videos, and movies) accounting for most of the overall media exposure difference. African American youths spend more time with television (4:05) than do either Hispanic (3:23) or white youths (2:45), and when all screen media are combined, daily viewing averages 5:53 among African American eight- to eighteen-year-olds, 4:37 among Hispanics, and 3:47 among whites. A similar pattern exists for time devoted to playing interactive games: African American youngsters report the most game playing (0:40 daily), followed by Hispanic youngsters (0:34), then white youngsters (0:30). On the other hand, race and ethnicity are not related to exposure to audio media, and although a significantly higher share of white youths (57 percent) than either African American (44 percent) or Hispanic (47 percent) report using a computer on any given day, the three groups do not differ reliably in the amount of time they use computers. Apparently fewer minority youths use computers, but those who do use them for longer periods than do their white counterparts. These relationships between media use and race and ethnicity largely withstand controls for socioeconomic status. It seems then, that African American youths are particularly attracted to screen media, especially television, and that the use of such media accounts for the lion's share of the differences attributable to race and ethnicity.27
Socioeconomic Status and Media Exposure
Reports of substantial differences in media exposure as a function of socioeconomic status are common, but recent research indicates that the picture may be changing. Earlier work found both parental education and household income to be negatively related to screen exposure in general and to television exposure in particular,28 a pattern that has been repeated more recently for national samples of both younger and older youths.29 For example, in 2005 children from birth to age six in households earning less than $20,000 a year viewed 0:27 a day more television than children in households earning $75,000 or more, a pattern repeated for youth with high school graduate and college graduate parents. Similarly, the Kaiser Family Foundation's 1999 data indicated that two- to eighteen-year-olds from households earning more than $40,000 annually reported significantly less exposure to television, to videos and movies, and to video games, than did their counterparts from households earning less than $25,000, resulting (not surprisingly) in less overall media exposure. Children whose parents completed no more than high school were exposed to more screen media (especially television) and reported significantly more total media exposure than did their counterparts whose parents had attained higher levels of education.
Recently, however, the picture has become clouded. The Kaiser study found no relationship between household income and either screen media exposure or overall media exposure among eight- to eighteen-year-olds questioned in 2004.30 Rather, there emerged what social scientists call a curvilinear relationship between level of parent education and both screen exposure and overall media exposure. Youths whose parents completed college reported the most media exposure, those whose parents had some college education reported the least exposure, and those whose parents completed no more than high school fell in between (but nearer to the group that had completed college). Because the share of youngsters within each parental education category who used each of the media on any given day did not differ, it appears that although all young people watch screen media, those from the low- and high-education subgroups watch for longer periods on any given day.31
It is unclear why the power of socioeconomic variables to predict exposure to electronic media is waning—or, indeed, whether this one fairly recent finding will be replicated. Nevertheless, it is at least reasonable to speculate that American households have been so inundated by most media for so long that economic barriers to access are no longer a dominant issue; most low-income households have multiple TVs, video game players, and music media. Moreover, social attitudes toward the various media have become more accepting; for example, highly educated parents may not be as critical of media content as they once were. Both trends were noted for television almost two decades ago.32
Gender and Media Exposure
Gender has not been shown to relate to differences in overall media exposure. However, boys and girls do report differing exposure to various individual media, although these differences also depend on age. Rideout and Hamel report that among young children, boys spend more daily time than girls with video games (0:09 versus 0:02), computers (0:10 versus 0:06), and screen media overall (1:42 versus 1:30).33 Among older youths, the relationship holds for interactive games (boys, 1:34; girls, 0:40), but there are no gender differences in computer time, though there are gender differences in how young people use computers. Older girls, on the other hand, report more daily exposure than boys to audio media (boys, 1:29; girls, 2:00). The overall result is no gender differences in total media exposure.34