CRANE RESEARCH FORUM RECAP: Digital Media and Young Children’s Learning

March 2021
written by Caitlin Lennon

The March Crane Research Forum hosted Crane senior research associate and interim director of research Dr. Rebecca Dore who shared research related to the increase in children’s mobile device and media use in recent years. She addressed the rising concern about children’s media use during the pandemic, as well as potential advantages and disadvantages of digital media use for children. Additionally, Dr. Dore shared what the research tells us about children’s learning from media and explored how media and technology can be used in positive ways to enhance learning and development.

Dr. Dore shared findings from three research studies she has been a part of:

  1. The first study examined links between joint media engagement (where parents and children use media to engage in activities together) and language and literacy in kindergarteners. Parents measured time spent on video compared to apps and games, and the study found that the children used media for an average of 23.5 hours per week. To measure parents’ joint media engagement, the study asked how they engaged with their children while using media. When looking at language skills, researchers found that children who used media 30-35 hours a week actually saw larger gains compared to children using very little media. When looking at literacy skills, when joint media engagement was low, higher media use was related to lower literacy gains.
  2. A second study Dr. Dore shared focused on teaching preschoolers from low-income backgrounds new vocabulary words by creating a mobile vocabulary game. Children played the game by repeating words and answering questions on their knowledge of the words to advance the game. In the lab study, researchers found that children who played the game got more correct answers on the receptive vocabulary test after they played the game than children in the control group. In the classroom, children played the game once a week for four weeks and the children did improve on the receptive vocabulary measure.
  3. The final study focused on the preliminary impacts of a virtual kindergarten readiness intervention conducted during the pandemic. The intervention focused on capitalizing on educational media and video chat lessons in a combined approach to target children and caregivers. They found that children seemed to gain on measures of many of the skills targeted, including significant increases in social emotional, patterning and alphabet knowledge.

Key Highlights and Data Points:

  • In 2020, 98% of U.S. children under the age of 8 had access to a mobile device at home.
  • Children’s time on mobile devices tripled from 2013 to 2017.
  • Children are using more media during the pandemic: Crane research in the early days of Ohio school closures due to coronavirus found media and technology use among kindergarteners from low-income families made up 6.6 hours of their day.
  • Media use is not universally associated with lower skill gains and can even have positive effects at moderate levels and with adult support.
  • For language and literacy, the relationship with children’s media use is not simple. Some media use may be a positive influence and context and content likely matter.

Action Steps:

Create and implement high-quality, research-based media products and programs

Learn more about Crane’s work on digital media and young children: