A new study by The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation shows that kids age 8 to 18 spend more than 53 hours a week online or in front of a TV screen. That's a little more than seven-and-a-half hours a day during which they're viewing or clicking away, not just at the computer, but on smartphones and video games as well.
Of course, they're multitasking, too; thanks to cable modems and cell phones, kids can be texting with one hand and typing or playing games with another, so they're managing to cram nearly 11 hours worth of multimedia content into those seven-plus hours, according to the report, which was released yesterday.
About 64 percent of the 2002 3rd- through 12th-graders surveyed said that the television was on in the background during meals, with 45 percent saying that the TV was on in their house "most of the time," even if no one was watching it. About 70 percent of them had a TV in their bedrooms; about 30 percent had a computer with internet access in their bedrooms. Media use increased substantially, the study found, once respondents hit the 11- to 14-year-old age range.
Back in 2005, the study's founders were certain that teens could not possibly squeeze in more screen time. "This is a stunner," Donald F. Roberts, a Stanford communications professor emeritus who is one of the authors of the study, 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."
My father is a scientist, and I grew up with hand-made computers that took 8-inch floppy disks -- a step up from the Commodore VIC-20 we used to have and the cassette tapes it used to store data -- and I played "Pong" regularly on the black-and-white TV in the family room. That was cutting edge, back then. Cell phone existed, but they were the size of a brick (and often called just that) and few people had them. I got my first one in my mid-20s.
Our oldest kids, who are teens and tween-age now, got their first cell phones in middle school or earlier. My youngest kids, who are 5 and 3, have two journalists for parents, so they're growing up with CNN in the background and NickJr.com on the PC in the family room. They can figure out how to work some game apps on my iPhone more quickly than I can (which isn't unusual -- the iPhone is pretty intuitive, for one thing, and as Globe Magazine staff writer Neil Swidey pointed out in his article on preschoolers and smart phones in November, "If done the right way, with the right limits, handing a preschooler a smart phone could be good not just for the parents’ sanity. It might even be good for the child’s development."
So I'm not surprised that more kids are logging more time in front of their computers, texting thousands of messages a month on their cell phones, or even going about their days with the TV blaring in the background. I think it's still up to parents to limit screen time, but I also think that increased access to technology is going to lead to increased usage.
Parents, how much time does your child spend using technology each day? Go on, include it all -- TV time, computer time at school, time spent playing games on your phone or texting their friends on theirs while you make dinner. Are you surprised by how much? Or is it less than you thought it would be?
For more information, see Barbara Meltz's post on establishing good computer habits from the start with your kids.
Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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