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Promoting safe online media use for kids

Published on Psychology Today

My oldest son turned 4 in January. Now as a full time preschooler, he often comes home reciting new words, new letters, and new songs. For the most part, this is a good thing: He’s learning a lot. He can now name the months of the year, the days of the week, and he can even write his own name. But some days when he comes home with something new, I have no idea where he learned it. The day he came home singing “Baby Shark” for the first time, I had no idea what he was singing or where he heard it. It was only weeks later, when I heard the song on YouTube, that I finally understood what he was singing. This was the first time I realized that as he gets older, I am going to lose more and more control over what he hears, what he sees, and what he learns from other people, and importantly, from media.

Last week, anxiety about control of our children’s media exposure went viral with news of the Momo Challenge. If you haven’t been tuned in, the “Momo Challenge” is an online game that reportedly has a frightening pop-up avatar that appears on YouTube or Whatsapp that encourages children to hurt themselves and others. It turned out to be a hoax that gained traction on social media and was then picked up by various news organizations, but it terrified parents nonetheless, which is likely why it spread so quickly. Momo made a lot of parents (including this one) think hard about their children’s media use, and how to best protect them from potential harmful content.

Protecting children from media is a big challenge, as media use in children has grown dramatically over the past 50 years. For example, in the 1970’s, children began watching television regularly when they were around 4 years old, the same age as my son. Nowadays, children typically begin watching screen media when they are 4 months old instead of 4 years old (Chassiakos, Radesky, Christakis, Moreno, & Cross, 2016). The type of media children are watching is also changing. For example, while the amount of time children spend watching television and DVDs, playing video games, and using a computer has gone down in recent years, mobile device use has gone way up. In 2011, while only 38% of 0- to 8-year-olds had experience using mobile devices, in 2013, that number nearly doubled, rising to 72% (Rideout, 2013). In fact, children under the age of 8 spend an average of almost two hours a day on screen media, including media like YouTube where the Momo Challenge allegedly spread. A recent study suggests that this number is actually a low estimate, and in a sample of 350 children between 6 months and 4 years of age, nearly 97% had experience using mobile devices, and for most, this experience started before the age of 1 (Kabali, 2015).

These numbers only get bigger as children get older. Nearly ¾ of teens own a cell phone, 92% say they are online daily, with 24% claiming that they are online all the time. Teenagers spend a lot of this time on social media in particular, with 71% claiming that they frequently use more than one social media site, including Facebook (which is the most popular), Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter (Lehnart, 2015).

Is there anything particularly dangerous about all of this screen time? The answer is mixed. While there is absolutely no evidence that infants under the age of 2 can learn anything from screen media, research suggests that preschool-aged children can actually learn literacy skills, vocabulary, and even social skills from high-quality, educational television programs (e.g., Linegarer, Kosanic, Greenwood, & Doku, 2004; Wright et al., 2001). For example, in a long-term study on children’s viewing of Sesame Street at home, researchers reported children who had access to the show were less likely to fall behind in school than children who didn’t (Kearney & Levine, 2015). Similarly, a recent study showed after watching Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, 2- to 6-year-old children exhibit better emotion recognition and empathy (Rasmussen et al., 2016).

Although this suggests that starting around preschool age, children can learn from media, there are some important caveats. First, screen time can have negative effects when it displaces other activities like talking to parents or playing with peers, and too much screen time has been linked to problems like obesity and sleep disturbances (Chassiakos et al., 2016). Second, content is important, and while there are various positive benefits of educational child-directed media for children, watching non-educational, general-audience shows is generally associated with lower academic skills in preschool-aged children (Wright et al., 2001). Further, children have really active imaginations, and preschool-aged children have problems distinguishing reality from fantasy (e.g., Rosengren, Kalish, Hickling, & Gelman, 1994), suggesting that some content can easily scare them, even content in child-directed media (thanks to Moana, I’ve had to explain to my 4-year-old countless times that there is no such thing as a Lava Monster). On top of that, children might have trouble distinguishing factual information from information that is made up or manipulative. Finally, given that children can learn positive things from television, it’s important to keep in mind that they can also learn negative things from TV, as evidenced by the link between watching violent content and children’s aggressive behavior (e.g., Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1963; Dillon, & Bushman, 2017).

The take home message is that content is important, and media, particularly the internet, are filled with things that we might not want our kids exposed to. Besides violent programming, there’s pornography, and commercial advertising. There’s also the possibility of contact with strangers who might try to collect our children’s personal information, or companies that will try to do the same; and then there’s contact with peers that could lead to cyber bullying or sexting (Valcke, De Wever, Van Keer, & Scellens, 2011). So how do we best protect our kids from inappropriate content, like Momo?

The obvious solution is to limit screen time use altogether. This is a fine strategy, especially for younger kids, but our ability to limit children’s total screen time use might diminish as they get older, especially in the teenage years. Further it’s also important to keep in mind that media and the internet in particular do carry some benefits: It can expose children to new ideas, it can teach them about current events, and it can even promote civic engagement (Chassiakos, et al., 2016). So perhaps limiting screen use altogether isn’t the only or even the best solution. An alternative strategy is to teach children about internet safety at an early age, and to monitor its use. A recent study showed that active participation in children’s media use by parents—talking to their children about the internet, being nearby while children are online, and sharing online activities—reduced children’s exposure to online risks (Duerager & Livingstone, 2012). In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends making a Family Media Use Plan, and even offers templates online to help. This is one way to start a conversation with children about how to use media appropriately, which is an important first step in making media use safer and more productive for our kids.

Photo: StockSnap/Pixabay


Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S. A. (1963). Imitation of film-mediated aggressive models. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 66, 3-11.

Chassiakos, Y. L. R., Radesky, J., Christakis, D., Moreno, M. A., & Cross, C. (2016). Children and adolescents and digital media. Pediatrics, 138(5), e20162593.

Dillon, K. P., & Bushman, B. J. (2017). Effects of exposure to gun violence in movies on children’s interest in real guns. JAMA pediatrics, 171(11), 1057-1062.

Duerager, A., & Livingstone, S. (2012). How can parents support children’s internet safety? EU Kids Online, London, UK.

Kabali, H. K., Irigoyen, M. M., Nunez-Davis, R., Budacki, J. G., Mohanty, S. H., Leister, K. P., & Bonner, R. L. (2015). Exposure and use of mobile media devices by young children. Pediatrics, 136(6), 1044-1050.

Kearney, M. S., & Levine, P. B. (2015). Early Childhood Education by MOOC: Lessons from Sesame Street (No. w21229). National Bureau of Economic Research.

Lehnart, A. Teens, Social Media & Technology Overview, 2015. Washington, DC: Pew Internet and American Life Project; 2015.

Linebarger, D. L., Kosanic, A. Z., Greenwood, C. R., & Doku, N. S. (2004). Effects of viewing the television program Between the Lions on the Emergent literacy skills of young children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96, 297-308.

Rasmussen, E. E., Shafer, A., Colwell, M. J., White, S., Punyanunt-Carter, N., Densley, R. L., & Wright, H. (2016). Relation between active mediation, exposure to Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, and US preschoolers’ social and emotional development. Journal of Children and Media, 10(4), 443-461.

Rosengren, K. S., Kalish, C. W., Hickling, A. K., & Gelman, S. A. (1994). Exploring the relation between preschool children's magical beliefs and causal thinking. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 12(1), 69-82.

Valcke, M., De Wever, B., Van Keer, H., & Schellens, T. (2011). Long-term study of safe Internet use of young children. Computers & Education, 57(1), 1292-1305.

Wright, J. C., Huston, A. C., Murphy, K. C., St. Peters, M., Pinon, M., Scantlin, R., Kotler, J. (2001). The relations of early television viewing to school readiness and vocabulary of children from low-income families: The early window project. Child Development, 72, 1347-1366.

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