Family Matters

Young Kids Increasingly Use the Internet Regularly

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Lots of kids younger than 6 can’t even read, but literacy — or lack thereof — is hardly an obstacle when it comes to Childhood 2.0: a quarter of kids under age 6 are venturing online regularly, according to data released this week by the research organization affiliated with Sesame Street. Meanwhile, 59% of their older brothers and sisters — ages 6 to 9 — access the Internet on a typical weekday.

“We’re not encouraging any media consumption before age 2,” says Michael Levine, executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, a nonprofit research group based at Sesame Street’s Sesame Workshop that studies how the digital world world impacts children’s learning. “But there’s a lot of evidence parents are passing back their smartphones to kids as young as age 1. iPads and iPhones have become digital toys for young kids.”

Fortunately for Grover and Big Bird, although the Internet may be gobbling up more and more of kids’ time, they still prefer watching television over going online. (More on Time.com: Who’s Linked In? 7% of Babies Boast their Own Email Address)

The figures surrounding television viewing are startling. It’s not surprising that 9 out of 10 kids older than 5 watch television; what’s double-take-inducing is how much they watch: at least three hours a day. Their younger siblings aren’t far behind them, at just under three hours a day. Considering that many children under 5 are awake for only about 12 hours a day, television-viewing seems to be accounting for a significant chunk of their waking hours.

The report, appropriately titled Always Connected, compiles data from seven studies conducted by Sesame Workshop, the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Nielsen Company and the Cooney Center.

The reassuring news is that kids are still reading, despite their obsessions with TV and the Internet. About 70% of parents said their children under age 6 spend time reading daily — 61 mins. on each weekday and 75 mins. on weekend days. (More on Time.comThe Very Hungry Caterpillar: A Dubious Weapon in the War on Childhood Obesity)

The percentage was even higher for older children: 91% of parents of kids aged 6 to 9 said their children read on weekdays — for 72 mins. a day — and 84% reported their children delve into books on weekends, for 75 mins. a day.

Around age 8, the studies noted a tangible shift in online patterns — more video games and more use of mobile devices like a Nintendo DS or an iTouch.

New devices with Web capabilities are popping up so quickly that there hasn’t been time to develop protocol around Internet use for children, things like how much and when. In any case, as with television, those limits are largely dependent on individual families’ personal preferences. (More on Time.comKid Crazy: Why We Exaggerate the Joys of Parenthood)

What’s for sure, though, is that parents should consider boundaries. “While we don’t have a hard and fast rule about how much media should be consumed, we feel parents do need to engage in a more intentional balancing act,” says Levine. Obviously kids need a wide array of different activities beyond being connected.”

Playing, for example.

A few weeks ago, while volunteering in my second-grader’s class, I placed my non-smartphone beside me on the table. A student came up and expressed disbelief that I didn’t have an iPhone.

He proceeded to tick off all the gadgets he, an 8-year-old, owns: cell phone, iPod, Wii.

“That doesn’t leave much for you to acquire as you get older,” I sagely observed.

He looked at me with disdain. “iTouch and iPad,” he pointed out, before marching outside with the rest of the class for old-fashioned recess.

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