Is There an App for That? New Thinking on Kids and Digital Media

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Is There an App for That? New Thinking on Kids and Digital Media

By Leigh Ross, Program Associate, The New York Community Trust

We know that kids today spend an enormous amount of time consuming digital media. What’s less clear is how we ought to feel about it. Depending on whom you talk to, smart phones, tablets, and other “screens” are either a) growing causes of behavioral problems and attention difficulties in children, or b) powerful tools for teaching and learning.

Given philanthropy’s impact on education and workforce policy, it is imperative that funders try to understand and reconcile the seemingly contradictory implications of these technologies.

To this end the Hive Digital Media Learning Fund in The New York Community Trust and NYC Youth Funders invited experts from the Mozilla Foundation, Joan Ganz Cooney Center, and the YMCA of Greater New York to share what they’ve learned about the effect of digital media and the web on developing minds and young lives.

Here are some of the key ideas that emerged from the discussion in January at Philanthropy New York:

  • Despite considerable efforts, the “digital divide” has endured  The federal government has equipped most of the nation’s schools with modern broadband technology, but teens from poor families still have limited access to computers and the internet. This makes it harder for them to complete homework, apply for jobs, and build social and professional networks—exacerbating many of the inequities these young people already face.
  • All screen time is not created equal After 15 years of recommending that parents keep kids under age two away from screens of all kinds, the American Association of Pediatrics is revising its guidelines because the “content a child engages in is more important than the platform or the time they spend with it.” In other words, when it comes to screen time, quality is more important than quantity. There’s also a big difference between the passive consumption and active creation of digital media. The more opportunities we can offer kids to develop their own apps, games, and MP3s, the better. 
  • The benefits of digital media are enhanced by real-time human interaction  The YMCA discovered this when it installed kiosks featuring digital “playlists” of physical activities. In the words of Lori Rose Benson, vice president of healthy lifestyles at the Y, “We thought, we’re just going to put these kiosks in our branches, and kids are just going to use them. Some kids did, but others said ‘we need more help.’” So, the Y developed an after-school program that allows kids to use the technology under supervision of a fitness coach. The program, which is called Y-MVP—as in “Moderate to Vigorous Physical Activity”—was a huge hit. Now, with the support of The Trust’s Hive Fund, the Y is replacing the kiosks with a mobile app, and thousands of local kids are using Y-MVP to get fit and have fun. 

Funders have a unique opportunity to influence the way that youth engage with digital media and the web. At the Hive Digital Media Learning Fund, we want to know: how are you approaching this issue? Send us an email at, or tweet at @nycommtrust, hashtag #hivebuzz



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