The fact that children and teenagers now spend a good deal of their lives connected to electronic devices is hardly news. We are now accustomed to the knowledge that teenagers are seldom seen without wires in their ears and a cell phone in their hand as they multitask their way through adolescence. Now, however, there is good reason to believe that these young people are far more connected than we have even imagined.
The Kaiser Family Foundation has just released a new study on the online lives of children and teenagers, and the statistics are simply astounding. America's children and teenagers are now spending an average of more than 7 1/2 hours a day involved in electronic media.
As the report states:
As anyone who knows a teen or tween can attest, media are among the most powerful forces in young people's lives today. Eight-to-eighteen-year-olds spend more time with media than in any other activity besides (maybe) sleeping - an average of more than 7 1/2 hours a day, seven days a week. The TV shows they watch, video games they play, songs they listen to, books they read and websites they visit are an enormous part of their lives, offering a constant stream of messages about families, peers, relationships, gender roles, sex, violence, food, values, clothes, an abundance of other topics too long to list.
Online, All the Time
The report is the third conducted and released by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Just five years ago, the foundation released a second study that indicated young Americans were spending an average of nearly 6 1/2 hours a day with media. Now, young people have found a way to devote another hour to media use, catching the researchers by surprise. As Donald F. Roberts, a professor emeritus of communications at Stanford University, remarked: "This is a stunner." He told The New York Times, "In the second report, I remember writing a paragraph saying we've hit a ceiling on media use, since there just aren't enough hours in the day to increase the time children spend on media. But now it's up an hour."
And it's not just that these kids are devoting 7 1/2 hours of their daily lives to media immersion - their multitasking means that they somehow consume nearly 11 hours of media content in that 7 1/2 hours of time. Over the last ten years, young people have increased their consumption and use of every type of media with one exception - reading. As the researchers make clear, the vast increase in the amount of time teenagers are able to access the media is due almost entirely to the fact that their mobile phones allow an online life that can be carried in the pocket (and in far too many cases, taken to bed). "The mobile and online media revolutions have arrived in the lives - and the pockets - of American youth," notes the report. "Try waking a teenager in the morning, and the odds are good you'll find a cell phone tucked under their pillow - the last thing they touch before falling asleep and the first thing they reach for upon waking."
The report indicates that 66 percent of kids now own their own cell phone, while 76 percent own an iPod or other MP3 player. Interestingly, these kids are using cell phones as mobile media devices, rather than as telephones. Young people spend an average of only a half hour each day talking on their cell phones, but their use of these devices for the consumption of media consumes far more time.
The report also offers a portrait of the media-saturated character of the average American home. That home now contains an average of 3.8 televisions, 2.8 DVD or VCR players, at least one digital video recorder, two computers, 2.3 console video game players, and assorted other media devices ranging from CD players to radios. In an amazing percentage of these homes, the television is on virtually every waking hour.
Media in the Bedroom
Even as the family home is populated with various media devices, the bedrooms of America's children and teenagers are virtually saturated with media. "More and more media are migrating to young people's bedrooms, enabling them to spend even more time watching, listening or playing," the researchers report. An amazing 71% of all children from age 8-18 have their own television in their bedroom, and half have a video game player and/or access to cable. These kids have computers, too. Almost a third own their own laptops and the majority have easy access to a computer, usually with broadband Internet connections.
In most homes, parents are setting few rules for media use - or no rules at all. The majority of teens and tweens reported that their parents have set no rules about the type of media content they can use or the amount of time they can devote to media consumption. When parents do set rules, they are far more likely to set rules about the type of content that can be accessed, rather than the amount of time that is devoted to media use. A good percentage of parents who do set rules, often leave them unenforced.
Parents should note this statement from the report: "Children who live in homes that limit media opportunities spend less time with media. For example, kids whose parents don't put a TV in their bedroom, don't leave the TV on during meals or in the background when no one is watching, or do impose some type of media-related rules spend substantially less time with media than do children with more media-lenient parents."
Media Use, Grades, and Personal Contentment
Another important section of the report indicates that the young people who spend the greatest amount of time with media report lower grades and lower levels of personal happiness and contentment. The researchers stated that their study "cannot establish whether there is a cause and effect relationship between media use and grades, or between media use and personal contentment." They added: "And if there are such relationships, they could well run in both directions simultaneously."
All this should serve to awaken America's parents - and all who care for America's young people - to the level of media saturation that now characterizes the lives of American youth. As The New York Times declared in its headline, "If Your Kids are Awake, They're Probably Online."
There is no turning back from the digital revolution. It is not realistic for most families to declare a principled disconnection from electronic media and the digital world. Nevertheless, this important report serves as an undeniable warning that America's young people are literally drowning in an ocean of media consumption. There is every reason for parents to be concerned about dangers ranging from the content of this media, to the way digital saturation changes the wiring of the brain, to the loss of literacy and the reading of books, to the fact that many teenagers are far more connected to their friends through social media than to their own families in their own homes. Teenagers are forfeiting sleep and other important investments of time because they experience panic when they are digitally disengaged for even a few moments.
What is the impact of all this media saturation on the soul? Of course, that is a question that must be posed to America's adults, as well as to our children and adolescents. At the same time, parents bear a responsibility many are clearly forfeiting.
The Courage to Disconnect
Dr. Michael Rich, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital Boston and director of the Center on Media and Child Health, told The New York Times that the media use of America's young people is so pervasive, it is time to stop arguing over whether this is positive or negative. Instead, he suggested that we should simply accept media as a constant part of children's environment, "like the air they breathe, the water they drink and the food they eat."
This is advice Christian parents cannot follow. We cannot simply accept that constant media saturation is now a fact of nature and a matter of constant need. These technologies and devices have their places, but the role of parents is to establish rules that protect children and teenagers from being dominated by technology and an army of digital devices. At the end of the day, parents must find the courage and wisdom to know when to disconnect.