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Kids are spending more time than ever watching YouTube (and much less time reading!)

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Half of the kids in the U.S. will own smartphones by age 11, and phone use is on the rise for kids as young as 8. And if you’re wondering what kids that young are doing on phones, it most likely involves watching videos.

A new Common Sense Media study reveals kids ages 8 and older prefer watching online videos more than most other forms of entertainment. For families, that signals a shift from four years ago, when network TV and streaming services far outpaced other platforms.

The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens 2019, released Oct. 29, is a big-picture look at how young people in the U.S. find entertainment and use devices. Total screen time for tweens and teens hasn’t changed much since the last survey, but it’s still extremely high: Nearly five hours per day for ages 8-12 and more than seven hours daily for teens — not including time spent using screens for school or homework.

“The results of the study show that ensuring children’s digital well-being is more important than ever,” says Michael Robb, senior director of research at Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that studies children’s digital habits and rates programming for schools and families.

YouTube personalities, online influencers and gaming celebrities have captured young peoples’ attention now that watching videos online tops watching TV, listening to music and even playing video and mobile games among tweens.

Sadly, reading lags way behind screen time. While just over half of teens (51 percent) still read for fun at least once a week, nearly a third of teens (32 percent) say they read for pleasure less than once a month, if at all. And enjoyment of reading declines as kids get older, with just 24 percent of teens — compared with 38 percent of tweens — saying they enjoy reading “a lot.”

The study also raises some red flags about the content tweens and teens are exposed to. “Our most vulnerable population — our kids — are spending a lot of time on unregulated, unrated platforms that deliver content that can be inappropriate or even dangerous,” explains Common Sense Media Founder and CEO James P. Steyer. “And the shift from TV to online viewing means kids are often watching content alone, and there are fewer opportunities for shared experiences with family.”

In light of the fact that more teens and tweens are spending hours daily on often unmonitored screens, here are six tips for guiding kids to healthier online experiences:

  • Think carefully before letting children have smartphones. Though a majority of kids have a phone by 11, base your decision about when (or whether) to get one for your child on your family’s needs and your child’s maturity level. A smartphone gives your child access to the entire internet.
  • Watch videos and apps with your children, and discuss what they’re seeing. Co-viewing and co-playing are bonding experiences, whether they happen on the big screen or a mobile device. Download games you can play against one another, subscribe to YouTube channels to watch together, and listen to audiobooks and podcasts. If you can’t watch together, ask about what they’re using. Most kids love to talk about media.
  • Enforce balance. Media use only increases as kids get older, so make sure you’re actively protecting your child’s homework time, downtime and family time. Set up “screen-free” zones — such as the dining table and the bedroom — and “screen-free” times like during homework.
  • Model healthy smartphone usage. With some kids getting phones as early as 8, it’s important that you demonstrate the habits you want your kids to mirror. When you have to use the phone while you’re with your kids, tell them why. Make a show of turning off your phone for family time. Tell kids how you set limits for yourself.
  • Explore YouTube. Kids really love YouTube. The platform has made changes to slightly improve the appropriateness of videos displayed to kids. But parents can utilize tools such as playlists, subscriptions and an ad-free membership to cut down on exposure to iffy stuff. Try making time to watch with your kids and check out YouTube channel reviews at commonsensemedia.org
  • Encourage creativity. According to the survey, young people devote very little time to creating their own content (just 2 percent of tweens and 3 percent of teens). TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram each have pros and cons, but they do offer sophisticated image-editing tools that allow kids to be creative and let their imaginations run wild. Consider experimenting with these apps to nudge kids toward writing, coding, 3D modeling and building games.

Parenting with Common Sense in the Digital Age

  • What: Are you considering buying your child a cellphone? Need to decode a YouTube challenge? Got a Fortnite fanatic at home? Common Sense Media is hosting an event to help parents raise healthy, happy kids in the digital age. Hear from experts, connect with other parents and come away with tips and resources to get you through the holidays and beyond. While free and open to anyone, the program is developed for families with children ages 8 and older. Spanish translation services are available.
  • When: 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 10.
  • Cost: Free
  • Where: Children’s Museum of Phoenix, 215 N. Seventh St., Phoenix. 602-253-0501 or childrensmuseumofphoenix.org
  • Register online: commonsensemedia.org/events/parenting-in-the-digital-age

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Kara G. Morrison
Kara G. Morrison
Kara G. Morrison is the editor of Raising Arizona Kids and the mother of Sofia (8).

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