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Navigating Nuances in Childhood Media Use

Finding nuance beyond the screen.

Key points

  • Different electronic devices and types of media can have unique effects on children.
  • A child’s unique temperament can alter the way media affects them.
  • Interacting with a child during screen time can help them become active participants.

This post was written with assistance from Luke Andrew Reno and Summer Snow.

Finding Nuance Beyond the Screen
Source: PIxabay

Whether you’re a seasoned parent or not, it is clear that our children do not engage with media in a vacuum. For example, sometimes while they are glued to their tablets, everything else in their world seems to vanish. Other times, they are sharing a love for a TV show with their sibling or climbing on your lap to get a better look at your phone. You might be surprised to learn that the specific ways children use and experience media may have a more significant impact on their development than simply the amount of time they spend on a screen. In this post, we delve into why the context of children’s media use matters in understanding and predicting their growth.

A recent study (Coyne, et al., 2023) captured childhood media use in the moment, shedding some light on the answer to this question. In short, understanding more about the context of your child’s media usage can improve your judgment and help you reach your parenting goals. We will cover three aspects of this context: the environment, the media itself, and the child.

The Environment

Children today have the potential to view media at any time, and anywhere. For example, many parents report leaving the TV on even when they are not actively watching, contributing to higher media exposure for their children. Our recent study also found that among children who consumed media with another person present, 61% of those individuals actively engaged with the child. Meaning that more than half of people watching shows with their children report discussing the show itself. Watching shows with your children may help them to be active participants rather than just passive observers—or not really getting anything from what they are viewing. It has been found that children are more likely to speak when their parents also speak when watching television, which helps children to engage in what they are watching. Children with parents who help them to engage with what they are watching are better at developing critical thinking regarding media, as they are actively thinking about what they are viewing. This critical thinking could help children to understand what the difference between right and wrong actually means. Parents are halfway there already since many are already present, but could go a step further by talking about the shows with their children, to really help their children to engage and be active viewers.

The Media

Parents can enhance and engage their children in the media experience by actively watching and discussing the content together.
Source: Pixabay

The media landscape seems to be constantly evolving, creating a challenging dynamic for parents. These days, children can watch many types of media on many types of devices. Our study found that more than 25% of children consume media on a mobile device, while another study found that the amount of time children spend watching online videos on sites like YouTube has doubled in the last three years. Keep in mind that just about anyone can upload an online video for your child to find, and it is likely that they are not experts in child development! Additionally, it can be much more difficult to engage with your child in the ways described above when they’re using a mobile device as opposed to the big family TV. Before placing a hard limit on how long your child is allowed to spend on screens, take into consideration what type of media they’re consuming and what device they’re using. Not all devices and content are created equal.

The Child

Consider your child’s individual characteristics when setting boundaries surrounding media.
Source: Pixabay

Just as there are different forms of media, there are different types of children. Children's temperament and behavior influence how they perceive media. Media can benefit behavior in children in a way that betters behavior by 25%, but can hurt behavior in ways that typically are behavior worsening by 27%. Children are very perceptive about behaviors they see, and depending on those behaviors, it can either benefit or harm their own behaviors. A good-natured child could possibly be influenced to do something they may not otherwise do if it is normalized in the TV show they are watching. Turning on a quick and easy TV show without making sure it is appropriate for your child could later affect how they behave. If your child sees something that could possibly affect their behavior in negative ways, it might help to sit your child down and have a conversation about what they viewed. Instead of just turning off an inappropriate show and trying to have your child forget about it, talk to them and see how they are feeling, and if it affected them in any way.

Your child’s media use is defined by more than their screen time.
Source: Pixabay

Whatever your parenting preferences, we hope that you will learn to approach childhood media use with nuance and context, just as you would with other aspects of life. Now that you know that your child’s media use is defined by more than their screen time, we hope that next time you are faced with a media-based decision that you will have the background and context to make a decision “in the moment” that aligns with your parenting goals.


Coyne, S., Gale, M., Ashby, S., Memmott-Elison, M. K., Holmgren, H. G., Barr, R., Christensen-Duerden, C., & Brown, S. (2023). Media in the moment: An observational assessment of the digital media context in early childhood. Translational Issues in Psychological Science, 9(3), 186–198.

Lauricella, A. R., Blackwell, C. K., & Wartella, E. (2017). The “new” technology environment: The role of content and context on learning and development from mobile media. In R. Barr & D. Linebarger (Eds.), Media exposure during infancy and early childhood: The effects of content and context on learning and development (pp. 1–23). Springer International Publishing AG.

Rideout, V., & Robb, M. B. (2020). The common sense census: Media use by kids age zero to eight. Common Sense Media.

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