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Exploring the Digital Divide

By Alex Piazza

Diapers, wipes, snacks, sippy cups and books.

For many parents, these are fundamental items to pack before leaving the house.

But in recent years, one particular item has grown in popularity among parents when heading to a restaurant, birthday party or doctor’s appointment with children in tow.

“The rise in ownership of smartphones and tablets by families with young children has risen exponentially over the past 10 years, and these portable and instantly accessible computers can now insert themselves into any family routine,” said Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioral expert and pediatrician at the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.

Radesky is among a growing cohort of researchers exploring children’s use of digital media and its potential impact on growth and development. Their research could shape how technology targeted to children is developed and regulated, and also help identify best practices for parents to monitor and use digital media.

“This is an important conversation to have in today’s society, but we must address it in a nonjudgmental way that is going to be very practical and helpful for parents,” said Radesky, who also has ties to the U-M Center for Human Growth and Development (CHGD). “A lot of people are worried about how technology is affecting children, and it certainly doesn’t help for researchers to contribute to that worry. The last thing parents need is a bunch of researchers telling them they’re doing something wrong, so I think it’s important to work together and figure out ways to address this issue.”

Below are examples of how U-M researchers are exploring digital media use among children and parents.

Advertising to Young Children

Advertising to Young ChildrenYoung children spend about an hour each day on mobile devices.

That was definitely not the case in 2011 when Radesky first began studying children’s technology use.

“I became very interested early on because here was this new kind of societal force that was easily accessible and could potentially make it much harder for parents to support their children’s social and emotional development,” she said.

Fast forward eight years, and some of those early impressions were accurate. That is not to say all technology use among children is bad, but Radosky often cites the importance of digital design and regulation.

That is why Radesky decided to explore the inclusion of advertisements in children’s mobile apps.


Jenny Radesky

Radesky and her colleagues, with support from the U-M Department of Pediatrics, combed through 135 of the most downloaded apps featured in the “5 and Under” category in Google Play. Their findings were quite significant, as they discovered at least one type of advertising in 129 (95 percent) of those apps.

The apps regularly were interrupted by popup video ads, persuasion by commercial characters to make purchases to enhance game experience, and overt banner ads that could distract, mislead and be inappropriate for younger audiences. Researchers also noted high rates of mobile advertising through manipulative and disruptive methods, with exposure to ads that in some cases surpassed the time spent playing the actual game.

“The market for early childhood mobile apps is like the wild west, as a lot of these apps appear more focused on making money than ensuring an adequate play experience for children,” Radesky said. “With so many children using mobile devices, this particular study has important implications when it comes to advertising regulation, the ethics of designing children’s apps and how parents discern which apps are worth downloading.”

Story Time

Story TimePajamas? Check.

Teeth brushed? Check.

That leaves story time, but picking out the right book before bed is not the only decision facing parents nowadays.

Do they sift through a bookshelf or simply activate an iPad? Tiffany Munzer understands the important consequences of parent-child relationships, and how activities such as reading together can improve growth and development.

Munzer and others, with support from the Academic Pediatric Association, invited 37 parent-toddler pairs to campus, where they read print and electronic books. Researchers examined the parents and toddlers to measure differences in how they interacted when reading both formats.

Their findings show that parents and children verbalized and interacted less with e-books than with traditional print books.


Tiffany Munzer

When reading e-books, researchers found that many parents fielded questions from children about the technology rather than the story itself. For example, some parents had to remind children not to push buttons or change the volume.

When reading print books, researchers found that children posed more comments and questions, which can help promote expressive language, engagement and literacy.

“Parents are said to be the best toys for their children, so it’s in the context of these relationships where child development actually happens, which then can set the stage for future health outcomes and income earnings,” said Munzer, a fellow in developmental behavioral pediatrics at Mott. “Through reading, parents can strengthen their children’s ability to acquire knowledge by relating new content to lived experiences. And research shows that conversations led by parents are especially important for toddlers because they learn and retain new information better when interacting directly with people as opposed to digital media.


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