The Kaiser Family Foundation study of children and teens found that media use is up dramatically, driven by mobile devices and multitasking. The average is 7 hours and 38 minutes of daily media consumption, including computer, TV, and texting. Factoring in the multitasking (overlapping use of texting while watching TV, for example) and the average total media consumption in that same 7 ½ hour period is 10 hours and 45 minutes. This report is the 3rd in a series of reports conducted by the foundation after a period of 5 year gaps.
Much has been made about the drop in traditional print reading (newspapers and magazines) and the overlapping consumption of distracting media (video games, music, television programming and videos). I can remember back when I was in college having to adjust to my roommate’s study method. She would put on a record album to play quietly, and then turn on the little black and white television we had to her soap opera and then sit on her bed with her textbooks open and reading. It amazed me that she could function with all those distractions but after a while, even I found I could tune out the other stimuli and get work done. It’s still not a favorite learning environment for me, but I can understand why what young people today are experiencing feels so foreign and worrisome to other adults.
Still as any reasonable adult, you have to wonder, is this good for kids or bad. Let’s look at their schoolwork. The impact on heavy media use is to impact grades negatively. 51% of heavy users of media self-report “good grades” (A’s and B’s) while Moderate and Light users report good grades more often (65% and 66%) . Heavy use also seems to have some impact on general socialization and happiness with heavy users reporting slightly less happiness in school, more boredom, greater sadness and find themselves in trouble more than those who use less media. We find a bit of chicken-and-egg syndrome in this information; does a sad moody teenager turn to media for consolation and self-esteem or does using so much media turn an otherwise achievement oriented happy child into a mediocre student?
Where parents make the greatest impact in determining whether or not your child will be a heavy, moderate or light user of media is in your efforts to limit their consumption. The homes where rules are set are homes with less media use. For example, not having a TV in the child’s bedroom is an effective method for reducing TV viewing. Not having a TV on in the background when no one is watching or at meal times is also a best practice of homes limiting media exposure. Having other rules, such as limits for TV and computer time or designating school nights to have different rules than weekends would likely also be considered effective rules.
As children enter middle school (ages 10-14) their media consumption increases dramatically. Give your child a music player such as an iPod and they will use it. Add to it the cell phone most 12 year olds have, and they will text and play games. Television consumption also rises, perhaps as children learn more about new shows from schoolmates and more discussions occur about favorite performers and musicians. You’ll remember from our OnlineFamily.Norton study released in December, children at that age are moving away from online game and toy sites and increasingly looking for information about celebrities like Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus as well as watching videos. YouTube is a top destination site across the ages.
So what do we make of this jump in media consumption? Anne Collier of ConnectSafely (and a member of the OnlineFamily.Norton Advisory Council) suggests we should take it with a grain of salt. She reminds us that all that media consumption includes learning, creating and collaboration. It’s not mindless or passive consumption. She asks that consideration also be provided for the informal learning occurring in social media and cites the Digital Youth Report that found “messing around” online can build technical and media literacy, often cited as crucial skills required for 21st century life. Dr. Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston said it was time to accept that this increased and overlapping media consumption is part of the environment of childhood, “like the air they breathe, the water they drink and the food they eat.”
I’m on the fence a bit more. We know that the more time spent online, the more at risk our children become for becoming cyberbullies. We know that a teen that has their cell phone under their pillow at night is exposed to electro-magnetic radiation from the device for stretches of 8-10 hours nightly. It’s not proven what impact that radiation has on the developing brain of a teen but we know that the combination of a sleepy teen and the privacy of his or her own bedroom may result in poor choices of inappropriate photos, text messages or social network postings.
I would suggest therefore the following standard household rules for those concerned about controlling runaway media consumption:
No TV in the bedroom
No computers in the bedroom
Cellphones are to be charged and stored for the night in the kitchen or other central location
Set limits for media consumption (discuss number of hours, appropriate programming and opportunities for increasing consumption on weekend days.)
Use parental controls on all devices: TVs, gaming consoles, computers, cell phones. You can limit hours of use, ratings of games and programs, monitor internet use and filter for content.
Consume media as a family. Watch or game together. Share a morning newspaper and discuss world events. Alternate who picks the radio stations during carpool.
Mealtimes should be media-free: turn off televisions, radios, and don’t allow texting at the table. If the family telephone rings during mealtimes, take a message or let the answering machine get it.
It may take a while to get things moving in the right direction but the focus should always be on successful enjoyment of media, not concern over the number of hours. As hard as it was for me to understand how someone could have music on while studying, I learned that it was a method that worked for my college roommate and even on occasion, for me.