Exploring the media activities of tweens and teens

New study provides a comprehensive look at young people’s media use.

Would it surprise you to learn that most young people report that watching television and listening to music are their highest rated and most common media activities? A study recently published by Common Sense Media asked young people to indicate the kinds of media activities they enjoy “a lot” and that they engage in “every day.” The majority of tweens (ages 8-12) and teens (ages 13-18) involved in this national study ranked both their enjoyment and frequency of television viewing and listening to music as higher than other media activities such as playing video games, using social media, reading and watching online videos.

The study was designed to provide helpful information for those concerned about the health and well-being of young people, such as parents, researchers, educators, policy makers and media content developers. It provides an in-depth look into young people’s media activities, including both screen-based media activities (such as watching TV shows, playing video games and using social media) and non-screen media activities (such as reading books and listening to music). The study also provides information about the devices that kids use, the frequency and amount of time spent with these activities, kids’ levels of enjoyment, and differences among young people related to age, gender, race and ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.

If you’re a parent or other adult who’s trying to better understand media use among young people, you may be interested in findings from the study such as the following:

  • Teens average about nine hours a day on entertainment media use. This involves more than six and a half hours spent with screen media, including watching TV, movies and online videos; playing videos, computer and mobile games; and using social media and the Internet. Tweens average about six hours daily, including about four and a half hours with screen media. The study’s authors stressed the importance of keeping in mind that these numbers represent averages, which means that many youth have much lower rates of media use while others spend higher amounts of time with media.
  • Even though the study showed that almost all young people spend time watching TV and listening to music, it was also evident that there are differences among kids in terms of their media patterns. For example, teen “social networkers” spend about seven hours a day with screen media, including more than three hours using social media. Teen “gamers/computer users” also spend seven hours daily with screen media, but a good deal of their time (an average of 2½ hours) is spent playing games and less time with social media. Both these groups spend about 90 minutes a day watching TV and videos. On the other hand, teens classified as “heavy viewers” spend about 13 hours a day with screen media, including six and a half hours a day watching TV and videos.
  • Because digital screen media (including computers, tablets and smart phones) can be used in different ways, the study explored whether young people were using the devices for passive consumption (watching TV or videos, reading and listening to music), interactive consumption (playing games and browsing the Internet), communication (using social media or video chatting), and content creation (writing or creating digital art or music). For both teens and tweens, the largest percentage of their daily media use involved passive consumption (39 percent for teens and 41 percent for tweens). The rates for content creation were lowest at three percent for both groups.
  • The study also showed differences related to gender, socioeconomics, and race and ethnicity. For example, teen girls reported higher rates than boys for listening to music, reading and using social media, while boys reported higher rates of playing video games. In terms of socioeconomics, higher-income teens and families reported higher rates of owning laptops, tablets and smart phone than lower-income teens and families – resulting in what the study’s authors called a significant “digital equality gap.”

These and other findings from the study can provide helpful information if you’re interested in having conversations with the tweens and teens in your life about media habits and preferences (including theirs and yours). Common Sense Media and the Family Online Safety Institute provide a variety of resources for parents that can enrich these conversations about media use, such as guidelines for healthy media choices. It’s also helpful to ask young people for their thoughts about the kinds of media messages they encounter and ways these messages may affect their views of themselves, other people and the world around them. Help equip them with key questions they can ask when watching entertainment media like television shows (such as “reality” programs), movies and video games – as well as the advertising that may be part of these media. Be willing to explore your important role in helping young people develop these kinds of critical media literacy skills.

You may also want to explore the variety of resources that Michigan State University Extension provides related to the positive health and development of young people. Among these is an initiative called Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments, which includes a curriculum that has a focus on helping kids become critical consumers of media. 

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