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7 May 2019

The MICS programme is developing a new module to measure how children spend their time.




Following the United Nations Statistical Commission’s endorsement of the International Classification of Activities for Time Use Statistics (ICATUS 2016) in 2017, the global gender statistics community, under the leadership of the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on Gender Statistics, has urged countries to give high priority to the collection of time use data given its critical role in monitoring the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly Goal 5 on Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women and Girls. However, methodological work on the collection of time use data has largely focused on the adult population even though gender disparities in how individuals spend their time begin to form in childhood. Currently, no standard data collection tools on children’s time use exist despite a growing empirical literature documenting the relationship between children’s time use and their health, nutrition, cognitive development, educational achievement and overall well-being.   

MICS surveys currently collect data on a range of outcomes on children’s lives and their living conditions, including data on time spent on household chores and economic activities to measure child labour. With the development of a full time use module to capture the type and duration of all activities children engage in, information will be available to assess how patterns in children’s time use differ by age and sex and correlate with outcomes in children’s well-being. With this data, countries will also have a better understanding of children’s lives and their participation in society.


Activities to-date


Reviews of time use literature and data collection methods

UNICEF undertook reviews of the empirical literature and data collection practices on children’s time use.  The need to measure children’s time use is widely supported in the literature, which largely focuses on the relationship between children’s time use and their cognitive and social development, human capital, physical health and gender equality within families. The survey instruments most commonly used to obtain time use data can be classified into two general categories: (1) stylized questions, in which respondents are asked to estimate the amount of time they spent on specific activities during a reference period, usually one day or one week; and (2) time diaries, in which respondentsreport the sequence and duration of all activities performed in a specified time period, usually 24 hours, in chronological order. In most countries, the minimum age for recording an individual’s time use is 10 years.


Consultations with Experts

As a member of the Expert Group on Innovative and Effective ways to collect Time-Use Statistics (TUS), in line with ICATUS 2016 and other international standards and in support of the SDGs, UNICEF has consulted with international and national statistics offices on the development of MICS’s time use module. In particular, the United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD), which serves as the global secretariat of the Expert Group, as well as co-custodian (with UN Women) of SDG Indicator 5.4.1 on time use, has provided guidance on the alignment of the MICS’ time use module with the categories of time use activities adopted by ICATUS 2016. UNICEF, in turn, will provide methodological guidance to the Expert Group on integrating a time use module into an existing household survey and capturing time use data on the child population.


Field testing in Malawi

In November 2017, MICS fielded for the first time two approaches to measuring how children spend their time using a paper questionnaire. The first approach used a 24-hour recall period. Mothers and caregivers provided a narrative of what children did and for how long, and this was recorded onto specific activities in the questionnaire. The second approach used a recall period of 1 week prior to the survey. This approach integrated child activities into the standard MICS Child Labour module. These were fielded in an all-rural convenience sample of 447 households in Nkhata Bay and Balaka, Malawi. A focus group of interviewers was conducted to provide further information about implementation. 

Overall, interviewers expressed a strong preference for the 24-hour recall period, as responses to time use were often provided in this manner, and further, it was difficult for the interviewers to transform these into weekly estimates when needed. Some interviewers expressed that in the rural setting, levels of education were low, and at times, extensive probing was needed to gather responses that were non-numeric in nature, such as “not long”. Further, respondents became disinterested in the time-use questions and showed fatigue. Survey data showed that on average, boys and girls displayed similar patterns in time-use across the various activities. However, activities which were uncommon had low averages. Respondents who reported on children who were away from the home in the reference period posed a challenge as these cases were reported as “don’t know”. 


Field testing in Belize

Based on the findings in Malawi and discussions with experts on time-use, it was decided to test a diary approach in Belize. To enable international comparison of the time use data, the module was developed to align with the categories of activities adopted by ICATUS 2016, with some categories adjusted to be more suitable to children, when necessary. The reference period of the diary was 24 hours, beginning at 4am the day prior to the interview. The diary was implemented for children aged 5-17 with the respondent being their mothers (or caregivers if the mother did not live in the household). Two focus groups of interviewers were conducted along with field observations. These qualitative data and the survey data will be analysed in the coming months.