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The Common Sense Census Part 1: A Report on Media Use by Tweens and Teens

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

In November 2015, Common Sense Media published a large-scale study that examines the way young people in the United States use media and technology. The study, conducted over six weeks in the early spring of 2015, included 2,658 children age eight to eighteen. Tweens were defined as children age eight to twelve. Teens were defined as children age thirteen to eighteen. The four primary goals of the Common Sense Media Census were to document:

  • The frequency of tween and teen media use
  • The time tweens and teens devote to media use
  • The level of enjoyment tweens and teens derive from media use
  • Differences in tween and teen media use by age, gender, race/ethnicity, and socioeconomic status

What is Common Sense Media?

If you’re not familiar with Common Sense Media, they’re a non-profit with a noble mission:

“Common Sense is the leading independent non-profit organization dedicated to helping kids thrive in a world of media and technology. We empower parents, teachers, and policymakers by providing unbiased information, trusted advice, and innovative tools to help them harness the power of media and technology as a positive force in all kids’ lives.”

Given the fact that we live in The Information Age – a time when we have virtually unlimited access to countless modes of media consumption and technology – an organization like Common Sense is important for parents to know about. In addition to publishing well-researched, scientifically sound, statistically accurate, information-rich reports like the Common Sense Media Census, they also offer unbiased reviews on books, movies, television shows, video games, and computer/mobile apps geared toward children. Common Sense rates them, determines their appropriate age group, and discusses their potential benefits and drawbacks. If you’re a parent concerned with the effect media might have on your child, bookmark their website and refer to it when you have questions. They’re a solid, reliable source of information from which every family can benefit.

But we digress.

The Census Questions

In addition to exploring frequency, amount, level of enjoyment, and socio/ethnic/economic issues related to tween and teen technology use, the authors of the study developed interesting and relevant new questions about the various purposes for which the new breed of electronic devices are used. They asked:

  • Which devices are used, and for what purposes?
  • How much time do kids spend using mobile devices vs. laptops?
  • Do they watch TV online or on a traditional TV set? For each, how long?
  • Do they use screen-based media for homework? If so, for how long?
  • How often do tweens and teens multitask, i.e. have media on in the background while doing homework?
  • How much do tweens and teens use screen media to create content, i.e. write original material, create graphic art, make music, or produce videos?

Types of Media Use

Common Sense researchers studied five major areas of activity:

  1. Watching: TV, movies, online videos
  2. Playing: Console-based video games, computer-based video games, mobile games
  3. Social Media Use: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram
  4. Reading: traditional bound media, e-readers, and online articles
  5. Miscellaneous: Browsing the internet, video chatting, texting, creating digital art, creating music

They considered the following devices/modes of media consumption: books, newspapers, magazines, CD players, radios, MP3 players, video Game consoles, handheld video games, TV sets, computers, tablets, smartphones, e-Readers, and various other devices.

A full analysis of the eighty-three-page report is beyond the scope of this article. However, we will tease out the key findings and discuss some of the more interesting statistics presented in the study. We’ll answer the primary questions we believe most parents want answered, such as:

How much media to tweens and teens consume, on average, per day?

How much screen time do tweens and teens experience, on average, per day?

What different kinds of media do tweens and teens consume, on average, every day?

How much time do tweens and teens spend on different devices, on average, per day?

How much time do tweens and teens spend in passive consumption (simply watching) vs. active/interactive consumption (communicating, gaming etc.) vs. creation (making music, etc.), on average, per day?

The Media Census: Facts and Figures

The following tables are adapted from directly from the Common Sense Census. This first table breaks down the average time per day tweens and teens spend consuming media of all types.

Average Time Spent Per Day By Media Type

TweensHrs:Mins TeensHrs: Mins
Watching TV/DVDs/videos2:26Watching TV/DVDs/videos2:38
Playing video, computer, or mobile games1:19Listening to music1:54
Listening to music:51Playing video, computer, or mobile games1:21
Reading:29Using social media1:11
Using social media:16Doing other activities on computer/mobile device:32
Doing other activities on computer/mobile device:13Browsing websites:36
Browsing websites:12Reading:28
Going to the movies:02Going to the movies:03
Total screen media 4:36Total screen media 6:40
Total media 5:55Total media 8:56

Notice the total time: almost six hours for tweens and almost nine hours for teens. Most parents would agree those numbers are larger than they might have expected. It’s important to note that these averages include both ends of the spectrum: kids who watch and use lots of media and kids who watch and use very little media. Since there are very few kids who consume no media, the daily averages are slightly skewed on the high side.

TV Still Rules

Also note another piece of data from this table: both tweens and teens spend far more time watching TV and videos than they do consuming other types of media. Playing video games and listening to music come in at 2nd and 3rd place, and dwarf the amount of time (aside from teens using social media) spent consuming other types of media. This confirms that, despite the prevalence and availability of new media, the preferences – if not the volume – of tweens and teens today are almost identical to what they were ten, twenty, and thirty years ago.

The next table offers data on how long tweens and teens spend each day consuming media on specific devices (in this table, printed media is considered a “device”).

Average Time Spent Per Day By Media Device

Television set1:29Smartphone2:42
Smartphone:48Television set1:31
Video game console:28iPod/iPod Touch :36
iPod/iPod Touch:27Video game console:32
DVD player:14DVD player:11
Handheld gamer :07Handheld gamer:05
CD player:04CD player:05
Movie theater:02Movie theater :03
Total mobile media 2:21 Total mobile media 4:12
Total mobile screen media1:53 Total mobile screen media 3:01
Total screen media 4:36Total screen media6:40
Total media 5:55Total media8:56

The first thing that jumps off this table – the difference in smartphone use between tweens and teens – is easily explained by the fact that most kids don’t get smartphones until middle school or high school, when they’re teens and not tweens. Another thing to note is the primacy of devices that, though modern, are not new: televisions, smartphones, and computers. This indicates that while young people may be early adopters of new technologies, they don’t immediately forsake traditional technologies. And yes – we’re aware of the inherent irony in calling smartphones traditional: they’ve only been around for just over ten years. This is testament to both how fast things change in the 21st century and how easily we become accustomed to new technologies that make our lives easier.

Next Up: More Data

The following table contains data about what we think is one of the most interesting questions posed by this study: whether tweens and teens consume media passively, interactively, or creatively. One fear most parents have is that their children mindlessly consume endless amounts of screen-based media, and that their passive consumption will have a net negative effect on a wide range of important developmental areas. Parents worry too much passive consumption leads to a sedentary lifestyle which leads to long-term health problems. They worry communication via text or instant messaging degrades the ability to communicate IRL (in real life). They worry, just like their parents did with regards to old-school television, that all the screen time is going to turn their kids brain to mush.

While we can’t allay those fears or offer answers on the effect of passive consumption on youth and adolescent development, we can consult the table to find out exactly how much time is passive, interactive, and creative.

Average Time Spent Using Media Per Day By Activity

Consumption TypeTweensTeens
Passive consumption 1:02 (41%) 2:06 (39%)
Watching online videos :25 :35
Watching TV:18:22
Listening to music:181:04
Interactive consumption :56 (37%) 1:19 (25%)
Playing games :44:44
Browsing websites:12:36
Communication:22 (14%) 1:24 (26%)
Using social media:161:11
Creation :05 (3%) :09 (3%)
Making art or music:04:06
Other:08 (5%) :23 (7%)
Total 2:33 5:21

The good news from this table is that though passive consumption by tweens and teens dwarfs creative use of screen-based media, interactive consumption makes a good showing: tweens spend almost as time interacting with screens as they do simply watching them. Also, when combining the interactive, communicative, and creative uses of screen-based media, the numbers reveal the encouraging fact that they outweigh passive consumption: 59% for tweens and 61% for teens.

Tweens and Teens: Types of Media Users

We’re going to leave two important aspects of the Common Sense Media Census for another post: the level of enjoyment tweens and teens derive from media use, and the differences in tween and teen media use by age, gender, race/ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Though those questions are interesting, we simply don’t have the space to cover everything in a single post: we’re exceeding our typical word count as it is.

Look for a discussion those topics in another post soon.

We’ll conclude by summarizing another fascinating element of the report: researchers noted trends in media use that were recurring, consistent, and distinct enough to create useful profiles of tween and teen media users. They found six types of tween media users and five types of teen media users. Tween users were categorized as Video Gamers, Social Networkers, Mobile Gamers, Readers, Heavy Viewers, and Light Users. Teen users were categorized as Heavy Viewers, Gamers/Computer Users, Heavy Readers, Social Networkers, and Light Users.

Here’s how they define the characteristics of these different categories of media consumers:

Tween Media Users

  • Video Gamers (23%) spend an average of two hours a day playing video games. They’re overwhelmingly boys (68%). They tend to read less than other tweens. And they’re likely to have a gaming console in their room.
  • Social Networkers (15%) spend about an hour and a half a day using social media. They’re predominantly girls (70%). They spend more time with screens than other tweens (almost 8 hours a day). And they’re likely to have their own smartphone.
  • Mobile Gamers (14%) spend close to two hours a day playing mobile games. They only play regular video games for about five minutes a day. They read about half an hour more a day than Video Gamers. And they spend roughly two hours less with screen media than Video Gamers.
  • Readers (11%) spend an average of just over an hour and a half a day reading. They average about an hour and a half of screen time a day. They tend to read every day. And they’re likely to have a parent with a college or advanced degree.
  • Heavy Viewers (10%) spend over five hours a day watching TV or online videos. They do not play video games very often. They probably have a TV in their rooms (64%). And they average about six hours a day with screen media.
  • Light Users (27%) make up roughly a quarter of tweens in the U.S. They spend about two hours a day using media of any type. They use screens for just over an hour and a half a day. And they spend less time reading and listening to music than other tween types.

Teen Media Users

  • Heavy Viewers (26%) spend over thirteen hours a day with screen media. They spend six and a half hours a day watching TV or online videos, just over two hours a day using social media, and are likely to have TVS and video game consoles in their room.
  • Gamers/Computer Users (20%) spend almost seven hours a day with screen media. They play video games for over two hours a day, watch TV or videos for about an hour and a half, and use computers for things other than gaming for close to three hours a day.
  • Heavy Readers (13%) spend just over an hour and a half a day reading. They’re more likely to be female (62%), prefer reading print media over electronic media, and are not likely to have a TV in their room – though they do spend an average of three hours a day with screen media.
  • Social Networkers (10%) spend over three hours a day using social media. They’re more likely to be female (66%), probably have their own smartphones (84%), and spend over seven hours a day with screen media.
  • Light Users (32%) spend an average of three and a half hours a day using media of any type. They like to listen to music (70%), watch TV or videos for about an hour a day, but appear not to prefer one type of media over another, and instead spread their media time across different types and devices.

The Tables: Our Takeaways

The first table we shared showed a relatively alarming level of daily consumption by tweens and teens. As you can see, tweens spent close to six hours a day consuming media. Teens spent close to nine hours a day consuming media. While we noted that the data skew somewhat high, the numbers are still rather scary. However, this last set of data on types of media users offers something reassuring. Notice more tweens and teens fit the profile of Light Users than any other profile. Parents looking for good news – and a dash of common sense – can take heart. Although screen-based media consumption dominates our culture, not all the young people in the country spend all their time staring at screens.

We think – and you might agree – that’s a good thing.

Thoughts: The Common Sense Media Census

In their conclusion, the authors of the study noted several key findings. First, the diversity of ways in which young people consume media. Second, the wide variety of patterns and preferences for use of different devices for different purposes in different situations. Finally, the overwhelming prevalence of entertainment media over all other types. Despite everything available to them, young people still like to watch TV and listen to music more than anything else. As noted above, this is not so different than ten, twenty, or thirty years ago. The difference is the amount. Our kids spend more time in front of screens than we ever would have imagined three decades ago. We’ll leave you with two things: a word of advice, and another set of statistics.

Tween and Teen Media Use: Our Advice

First, pay attention to how much your kids consume media. Know the types of media they consume and how they use the devices they have access to. The statistics say that for most of them, media consumption is a big part of their lives. Therefore, it would be wise to understand exactly what it is they’re spending their time doing. Second, the final round of statistics. Twenty percent of tweens use screen media for over six hours a day, and eighteen percent of teens use screen media for over ten hours a day.

For better or for worse, we’ve come a long way from five TV channels and a set of rabbit ears with tinfoil extensions. What we do next is up to us. And after that, our children. Let’s make sure we use common sense. And let’s remember: we can access the digital world through our devices, but the real world awaits. Right outside our door. All we have to do is take a walk, and we’re there.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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