Major Changes In How American Children Spend Their Time

November 09, 1998

Part I: U-M study reveals major changes in how they spend their time.

ANN ARBOR---American children spend 1.3 hours a week reading, 1.7 hours studying, and 12 hours a week---one- quarter of their free time---watching television, according to a University of Michigan study that provides the first look since 1981 at how U.S. children spend their time.

Based on a nationally representative sample of 3,586 children, ages 12 and under, the study also provides a wealth of other information about children's health and development, including how much time parents spend with them.

Conducted by sociologist Sandra L. Hofferth and colleagues at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR), the study was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the W.T. Grant Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It is part of the larger Panel Study of Income Dynamics, co-directed by Hofferth and U-M economist Frank Stafford, conducted by the ISR for the last 30 years.

"Major changes have taken place in how children spend their time," says Hofferth. "For example, children ages 3 through 11 today spend about six hours a day in preschool or school, compared to about four hours a day in the early '80s."

Children are also spending more time every day doing household work, including shopping, she reports. Girls, ages 3 through 11, log nearly 1.5 hours of such activities on Saturday and Sunday, boys slightly less.

Today's children spend about 30 minutes less a day, on average, in unstructured play and outdoor activities, Hofferth reports.

"Taken together, these data show how children's lives are being affected by the family time crunch," says Hofferth. "They're spending more time in day-care and pre-school, and accompanying their parents in household tasks and errands, and they have less time for free play."

Another indication that the work-family time crunch is hitting children: they spend nearly 20 percent less time eating on an average weekday than they did in 1981. Altogether, free time---defined as time left over after eating, sleeping, personal care, attending school, preschool or day-care---has decreased from 40 percent to 25 percent of a child's day. And one-quarter of that free time is spent watching television.

For the study, researchers asked children, with help from their parents if necessary, to fill out two days' worth of time diaries, then analyzed the results and compared them to the earlier U-M time-use study, which covered children ages 3 through 11.

Among the highlights:While the 1981 U-M study did not cover children age 2 and younger, the new study also details how babies and toddlers spend their time. They spend about 12 hours a day sleeping, 3 hours a day playing, 1 hour and 40 minutes eating, and one-hour and 10 minutes watching television, Hofferth found. But in the course of a week, they also spend nearly 10.5 hours in child care or preschool, 3.5 hours visiting, and half an hour in church.

The researchers also examined factors associated with the amount of time children spent in various activities. Children whose mothers worked outside the home, for example, spent more time in school and day-care and less time in free play, on average.

Many of the changes in how children spend their time are the result of widespread demographic changes in U.S. families, Hofferth, notes. These include increases in households headed by single parents and in maternal employment.

HOW U.S. CHILDREN SPEND THEIR TIME
Source: University of Michigan Institute for Social Research
Panel Study of Income Dynamics
Child Development Supplement
1997


ESTIMATED MEAN WEEKLY HOURS:MINUTES SPENT IN MAJOR ACTIVITIES BY AGE Notes:Source :PSID-CS 1997
*Total weekly time in hours:minutes =168:00
Weekly times for individuals derived as the sum of 5 times
weekday time + 2 times weekend day time


Note: only children who had both weekday and weekend diaries are included. Odd cases missing or visiting all day also removed from analysis

Part II: U-M study shows how they're doing at home and in school.

ANN ARBOR---Half of American children ages 12 and under are in excellent or very good health, and have no chronic conditions that limit their activities, according to their parents. Half are not.

Most children are cheerful, happy, polite, curious, and easy to get along with, according to their parents. But one out of five are fearful, anxious, unhappy, sad, depressed, or withdrawn. Two out of five are impulsive, disobedient, or moody. About one in 25 have a behavior problem at school.

About 66 percent of parents say they're close to their children emotionally, and hug their child, tell the child "I love you," or joke or play with them several times a week. But the nature of the relationship changes as children age and spend more time with peers. Almost 80 percent of parents of preschoolers report a lot of warmth in their relationships, compared with only 57 percent of parents of school-age children.

Children have four friends, on average. But 12 percent of school-age children have no friends or only one.

These are a few of the wide range of findings from a new University of Michigan study of a nationally representative sample of 3,586 U.S. children. Funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the W.T. Grant Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the study is part of the ongoing Panel Study of Income Dynamics, conducted at the U-M Institute for Social Research for the past 30 years.

Conducted by sociologist Sandra Hofferth and colleagues, the study provides a national snapshot of the physical, emotional, and social health of American children in 1997. It also analyzes how children's well-being and academic achievement are related to race, family structure, parental education and income, and to such factors as how children spend their time, and how much time parents spend with them.

For the study, Hofferth and colleagues interviewed parents, primary care-givers, and teachers, as well as the children themselves. They asked a wide range of questions designed to provide detailed information about children's relationships with parents, peers, and teachers, as well as their health, well-being, and achievement.

Among the major findings:

Medical Care About 36 percent of children did not have a routine medical check-up in the year before they were interviewed. But only 12 percent did not see a doctor for any reason, including illness or injury. About 10 percent of children had no health insurance coverage when their families were surveyed, and 18 percent lacked coverage at some time during the previous year.

Health While 84 percent of the children studied were in excellent or very good health, according to their parents, 6 percent had fair or poor health, or a limitation on their activities. In general, children's health decreases with age: only 3 percent of infants had poor health, compared with 8 percent of school-age children. Having a limitation on their activities is linked with lower achievement test scores and more behavior problems, Hofferth found.

Family Life Children from families headed by a single parent had lower achievement test scores and more behavior problems than other children. Of those studied, 42 percent lived in two-parent families in which both parents worked; 25 percent lived in two-parent families with the father working; 4 percent lived in two-parent families in which the mother works and the father doesn't, or in which neither parent works; 20 percent lived in families headed by one working parent; and 8 percent lived in families headed by a single parent who does not work.

School About half the parents were involved in five or more different school activities in the year before they were interviewed. Parents who were more involved with their children's school had children who did better on achievement tests, Hofferth found. Almost 75 percent of parents reported having regular conversations with their children about school activities, subjects being studied, or school experiences. Just over 70 percent of parents expected their children to complete a college degree. About 5 percent of children changed schools in the past year, with nearly 2 percent making two or more school changes. Those who experienced several school changes had more school problems than other children, Hofferth found.

Activities Only about one out of five children ages 9 through 12 use a computer, Hofferth found, for an average of about one hour a week. Boys spend almost twice as much time using computers as girls---1.4 hours a week compared with three-quarters of an hour. While children spent little time reading, about 1.3 hours a week on average, those who read more achieved at higher levels than those who did not read at all or who read very little. In contrast, children spent 12 hours a week, on average, watching television, and those who watched more did worse on tests of verbal and math achievement.

PART III: U-M study identifies how parents can affect children's adjustment and achievement.

ANN ARBOR---What can parents do to influence their children's academic achievement and emotional adjustment? A new University of Michigan study of a nationally representative sample of 3,586 children and their families identifies several key ways.In fact, after controlling for race, health, and other influences beyond the control of even the most conscientious parents, Hofferth found that expecting a child to finish college is associated with an increase of six full points on a child's reading test score.The average household in the study had three children, but researchers found that each additional child in the family was linked with a 1.5-point reduction in a child's verbal test scores."Things over which parents have little or no control, such as race, verbal ability, and their child's health, also contribute to children's achievement and emotional well- being," says Hofferth. "But there are plenty of other things under the parents' control that do matter.

The study is part of the larger Panel Study of Income Dynamics, conducted at the U-M Institute for Social Research for the last 30 years. It was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the W.T. Grant Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
-end-


University of Michigan

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