How do children and teenagers grow up with media?

This article is part of Media Education

From a young age, children enjoy the fun sides of media. As they get older, they’ll want to try out more things and the level of risk changes accordingly. Discover what children can do by themselves and what they still need supervision with, from their first baby steps to their last teenage trot.

0 to 3 years old: babies and young toddlers

Eenvoudige, herkenbare beelden en geluiden trekken de aandacht van baby’s. De interactie met media gebeurt eerder spontaan en toevallig. Vanaf 2 jaar bootsen ze je gedrag na, dus ook de manier waarop je omgaat met media.

Babies and toddlers are completely fascinated by everything in their little world. They are constantly looking around. Especially simple, recognisable images and sounds draw their attention. A fun figure that appears on the tv screen? Babies will probably spot it, but at this age, all interaction with media is primarily spontaneous and incidental. Before the age of 2, children won’t learn much from it. Their brains are better at learning from the real world than from a flat screen.

When they get to 2 years old, children learn to do lots of things themselves: swiping from left to right, opening an app, clicking and dragging, … Recognising, pointing at and naming objects that appear also becomes possible. From now on, toddlers start to consciously enjoy screen usage: children may not be able to use tablets or smartphones by themselves yet, but they know very well what is and isn’t fun to look at. They also start imitating the media usage of adults. Surely all toddlers try to make a phone call with the tv remote at some point?

4 to 6 years old: toddlers

Toddlers explore media through play. A helping hand is welcome, because doing it independently isn’t really possible yet. As an adult, you can discover media with them and talk about it.

Toddlers are eager to learn and love to discover media through play, although they also get distracted easily. They are very attracted to screens. Pushing buttons, swiping a screen, describing what they see: they love it all, and with the help of adults, they gradually get better at it. Step by step, they learn how screens and devices work and what they are used for. By fidgeting with them, but mostly by watching those around them closely.

Even so, they can still use the help of (grand)parents and older siblings when using screens: they can’t read yet, and they often haven’t mastered finer locomotion yet either. They also tend to struggle with sticking to rules and agreements. Luckily, they become increasingly verbal as well: they usually aren’t shy to ask for help.

7 to 9 years old: kids

Kids become more self-sufficient and find their way around media more easily. They start using the internet, which means your attention should shift to critically assessing (social) media.

Kids can read and write, which opens new doors. It makes them more self-sufficient, and they discover the joys of new sorts of media. Games, for example, and their first (child-friendly) social media. They also start showing clear preferences for content that is specifically aimed at boys or girls.

From primary school, kids no longer need help from adults when it comes to using devices or searching for fun things to watch. They know what they want, where to find it, and how to engage with it. For example, finding videos on YouTube, finding their way around a website, or opening a camera and even shooting a video. They also understand that there is such a thing as advertisement. However, critical reflexes are still at their infancy: it’s best not to let go of kids’ hands yet.

10 to 12 years old: tweens

At this age, kids are well aware of what they can do with which media. Social contacts gain importance and boundaries are there to be tested. The ideal time to start discussing topics like cyberbullying or sexting.

Tweens continue to explore the online world and will increasingly do so on their own. Media are often a way for them to express their creativity. They become better at the skills they started developing at a younger age, and occasionally question the things they encounter, although it doesn’t exactly keep them up at night. It’s a good time to start talking to them about these things now, before they become reel teenagers: it provides a solid base for their more rebellious teenage years. 

Tweens will start making friends online, often preferring ‘real’ social networks over child-friendly alternatives. Children at this age have a tendency to seek out and push boundaries, also each other’s. Although they are increasingly capable of considering what is and isn’t appropriate on the internet, their efforts yield mixed results. Teachers might encounter cases of cyberbullying at school, while parents may be confronted with unexpected spending in games or apps. Tweens are also very easily influenced by friends. The latest game, the newest hype: chances are they want it all, at any cost.

13 to 15 years old: teenagers

Teenagers prefer to make their own choices about the what, when and where of media usage. They use media for leisure, but also to find information. They can still use some advice to do so cleverly and critically.

Buckle up: your children are real teenagers now. That means that the adults around them know less than ever about what they get up to. From photoshopping selfies to sending naughty pictures to (potential) sweethearts. Teenagers like to decide for themselves what they do, when they do it, and how they do it – their use of media is no exception. 

At this age, to some extent teens use media in the same way as adults do. They know the basics about how to use the internet safely and how to respect others’ privacy. They also think about how trustworthy information they find might be, at least when encouraged to. Talking is still important: teenagers aren’t yet fully aware of the risks inherent in media usage, both in the short and in the long term. Teenagers’ internal brakes don’t work very well, so a little advice can go a long way.

16 to 18 years: young adults

Older teenagers don’t always question their own media usage. Media are mostly a way to relax and communicate with friends. They also start following the news. Make sure the online world has no unpleasant secrets in store for them!

Young adults are just that: on the brink of adulthood. Bit by bit, we adults have to let them go. Rightly so, because at this age, strict rules are lost on teenagers. They do their own thing, can handle more responsibility, and are less prone to testing boundaries. Media have become just about indispensable in their daily lives: they use them for leisure, for social purposes, and to stay in touch with what’s happening in the world.

Even now, using media comes with its ups and downs. Young adults can still be caught by surprise by the consequences of certain online behaviours. But let’s be honest: even the best horse stumbles occasionally. Stumble, get back up, and continue!

Published on 22 February 2024