If you marvel at how kids these days know their way around technology better than you do, here’s something to dispel the mystery of their genius. Practice makes perfect, and kids probably are getting a whole lot more practice than you — and possibly more practice than you even thought possible.
According to a new study from Stanford University and Kaiser Permanente, most kids these days spend virtually all their free time online or plugged into entertainment media. The study, which followed a representative sample of 2,002 third through twelfth grade students, found that the average child aged eight to 18 spends seven hours and 38 minutes daily immersed in movies, social networking, video games, and music/audio. Since most kids multi-task — simultaneously watching television while communicating on the internet, for instance–the total entertainment media time registered for the average child was 10 hours and 45 minutes every day. Believe it or not, that does not include the time spent texting or talking on cell-phones, which adds an additional two hours daily, on average, for kids in grades seven through 12. That comes to a grand total of almost 13 hours daily plugged into entertainment media and technology, not including time spent online doing homework. In fact, it’s a wonder that kids have any time left for homework, assuming that they also spend time in school and sleeping.
These figures represent a big jump since 2004, when the average kid spent two fewer hours daily (if you count multitasking) enmeshed in entertainment media. The experts attribute the escalation to the fact that more kids now own cell phones and iPods, giving them easier access to media at all times. In 2004, 39 percent of all kids had cell phones compared to 66 percent now; only 18 percent had iPods and now 76 percent do.
The biggest allotment of media time for most kids goes to television. Most kids watch TV during meals (64 percent) and almost half report that the TV stays on at their home all the time. But the bulk of TV viewing for kids no longer happens in front of the traditional television set. Most kids report that at least half of their television viewing is on their iPods, their computers, or their cell-phones. In fact, the ready access to television via mobile devices has led to a big jump in viewing time. Five years ago, the average time spent viewing television was 3:51 hours daily and now it’s 4:29 hours.
The big question, of course, is what does all this media time do the developing brains of kids? Certainly, it doesn’t bolster academic performance. Half of the kids who use media heavily got fair or poor grades (C’s or lower), as compared to only a quarter of those kids who view fewer than three hours of media daily. Kids do still read, in spite of the easy access to alternatives, but books take up an average of only 25 minutes a day (and we can only guess how much of that is on vampire romances), magazines get an amazing nine seconds and newspapers and mind boggling three seconds. Translated — if you own any stock in print media, it might be time to pull out.
In terms of social development, a huge percentage of the time kids spend plugged-in involves solitary activities or activities that avoid in-person contact. Talking on the cell-phone is a relatively minor activity for most kids. The subjects in the study spent an average of only about 30 minutes a day doing so. They did spend time engaged in social activities like texting and cruising networking sites, but again, the contact in those arenas is certainly not face-to-face, nor even voice-to-voice. In fact, kids spend one and a half hours daily texting, a bit over an hour on social network sites or instant messaging, and only half an hour talking on the phone — and it doesn’t seem likely that the average kid would have a lot of time left over to get together with peers in person.
There’s evidence from numerous studies that all this media exposure impacts kids in unfortunate ways. A study in 2009 found a link between excess media exposure and depression in teens. A 2008 study linked pediatric sleep disorders with too much media time. Various studies have found that excessive media time leads to lower grades, behavioral problems, and obesity. In spite of these findings, most parents don’t intervene in the love affair their kids have with technology. The study found that only 28 percent of parents limit their children’s television time at all and only 36 percent restrict computer time.
The statistics shocked the researchers, as they shock many adults who grew up before cell phones came in designer colors. Rachel Dretzel, author and producer of the FRONTLINE special, Growing Up Online, says the Internet has created the greatest generation gap since rock ‘n’ roll. Her associate producer, Caitlin McNally, comments, “More than once, I’d be trying to follow up with a kid and I would discover pretty quickly that the only way I could elicit a response was through a text message or social networking site. I would place call after call, or send e-mail after e-mail — nothing. But with a text, or a message on Facebook, a response would ping back within minutes.” McNally says most kids consider email incredibly cumbersome, much like many adults now consider writing letters long-hand. Again, this is a fact that most adults, who may be still getting the hang of emailing, haven’t a clue about.
Certainly, though, marketing moguls have figured it out. According to a 2006 study, virtually every corner of the food industry has a web presence encouraging young kids to consume their wares. The study found 77 food products advertised on over 2,000 web pages targeted to children, replete with colorful games, activities and entertainment to push their products. In the three months of the study, such food-related websites had 12.2 million visits from children under age 11. And the smart marketers know that to reach kids, they need to hit the places the kids go, so, for instance, McDonalds had a text message campaign targeted to young users, Burger King has a MySpace profile, Wendy’s launched viral videos on You Tube, and Kraft launched a successful instant messaging campaign
Some experts insist that limits must be set on kid’s access to media, but others say it’s futile, the world has changed and parents had better get hip to it. Dr. Michael Rich of Boston’s Children’s Hospital, for instance, says media use has become so omnipresent that we must accept it as part of children’s environment, “like the air they breathe, the water they drink and the food they eat.” The fact is that the air they breathe and the food they eat increasingly is being influenced by new media, so if parents want to be on top of what their kids drink and eat, they’d better learn to navigate around the places their kids go so they can exert some influence. And as a bonus, imagine how much fun it will be to instantly tweet your 8,000 closest friends.