Why We Need More (and Better!) Research on Kids and Tech

News about gaming disorders, depression linked to social media use, and the right amount of screen time can leave parents with more questions than answers when it comes to navigating what’s best in today’s 24/7 digital world.

According to the latest Common Sense research, the proportion of teens who use social media multiple times a day has doubled over the past six years: In 2012, 34 percent of teens used social media more than once a day; today, 70 percent do. At the same time, most teens — seventy-three percent — think social media is designed to make them spend more time on their devices and distract them and their friends. The days when we could talk about a singular “effect” of social media are long gone; its role is complex, nuanced, and varied. And, as any parent knows, social media is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to thinking about digital well-being. From waking up to phone notifications to Googling directions to soccer games, what we do with tech tools increasingly feels like a necessary part of daily life.

As the director of research at Common Sense, I spend a lot of time reviewing data and studying trends when it comes to kids and tech, including a mix of studies that demonstrate positive, negative, or no effects of media and technology on children. What we do know, and what many parents have experienced firsthand, is that there has been rapid growth in the last few years when it comes to access to technology and the amount of time kids and families spend in front of screens.

  • Ninety-five percent of families with children age 0 to 8 now have a smartphone.
  • Parents themselves spend over nine hours a day on screens at work and at home.
  • Teens report spending nine hours a day with media, including more than four hours a day on their mobile devices.

What we don’t know is what effects this “always on” digital culture are having on our health, relationships, and communities — especially when it comes to kids. The truth is, technology is changing and evolving at a rapid pace, and research simply isn’t keeping up. And with research we can come up with informed solutions and strategies to ensure kids’ and families’ digital well-being.

That’s why we’re excited about the Children and Media Research Advancement Act (CAMRA), a bipartisan and bicameral bill recently introduced by Senators Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Susan Collins (R-Maine), and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) as well as Representatives John Delaney (D-Md.) and Ted Budd (R-N.C.). The bill would direct the National Institutes of Health to conduct and support research on media and tech’s impact on the health and well-being of kids. As the largest public funder of biomedical research in the world, the National Institutes of Health has the unparalleled ability to support long-term and meaningful research.

Data on the impact of media and tech on kids can help identify evidence-based harms and opportunities to inform needed changes. Initial research has confirmed what many families have seen in their own lives: Digital connectivity is beneficial for learning, creating, and connecting; at the same time, excessive and problematic use of digital devices can leave kids feeling addicted, unhappy, and distracted. But more research is needed, on everything from brain development to the influence of tech on relationships and vulnerable communities. We need far better data, using a range of methodologies, with populations that accurately represent the population of the United States.

Find out more about our ongoing research here, and if you want an alert when this bill comes up for a vote and you can make your voice heard with your representative, let us know. Together, we can make sure we have all the facts we need to help raise happy and healthy kids in today’s digital world.

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For exclusive commentary from Common Sense Media’s Executive Editor Sierra Fillucci on the latest study findings on teens and tech mentioned in this article, have a listen to to Mozilla’s Kids These Days IRL podcast episode. Today’s teens are the first humans who have spent their entire lives online. It’s time we understand what they’re facing on the interwebs, and how we can keep up.

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