Young Children Have Almost Universal Exposure to Mobile Media Devices

While studies as recent as 2013 revealed an income-based "digital divide" when it came to mobile media device ownership, new research indicates that gap is quickly shrinking. Young children in an urban, low-income, minority community had almost universal exposure to mobile devices—with most having their own device by age 4, according to a study to be published in the December 2015 issue of Pediatrics (published online Nov. 2).

Researchers surveyed parents of children at an academic medical center in a low-income minority community in Philadelphia for a well or sick visit in late 2014. Almost all the 350 patients' households had televisions (97 percent), and most had tablets (83 percent) and smartphones (77 percent). More than half had video consoles (56 percent), computers (58 percent) and Internet access (59 percent).

Overall, 97 percent of the children had used a mobile device. By age 2, children's ownership of mobile devices surpassed that of television.  At age 4, half of the children had their own television, while nearly three-quarters had their own mobile device. The study cites decreasing costs, marketing strategies and subsidies by cellular service providers as possible contributing factors.

Other findings:

  • Nearly half (44 percent) of children under age 1 used a mobile device on a daily basis to play games, watch videos, or use apps. The percentage increased to 77 percent in 2-year-olds and plateaued after that.
  • One-quarter (28 percent) of 2-year-olds did not need any help navigating a mobile media device, and 61 percent needed help sometimes. Almost half (43 percent) of 4-year-olds never needed help, and half of them liked to use multiple media platforms at the same time.
  • Parents reported letting their children play with mobile devices to do chores (70 percent), to keep the child calm in public places (65 percent) or run errands (58 percent), and 28 percent used a mobile device to put their children to sleep.

The study's authors said the high proportion of young children with their own mobile device was of particular concern because little is known about how children's independent activity on mobile devices affects their cognitive, social, and emotional development.