Covering a DeKalb commission meeting two years ago, I noticed a year-old or so baby quietly sitting in her stroller while her mother waited for her turn to speak at the podium.
As the mom left the meeting and passed where I was standing, I understood what had kept the baby preoccupied for an hour. She was watching a children’s movie on a portable toddler DVD player – one encased in colorful plastic so it could survive drops and drools.
So, I was not surprised to read this startling data in The New York Times:
The average young American now spends practically every waking minute — except for the time in school — using a smart phone, computer, television or other electronic device, according to a new study from the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Those ages 8 to 18 spend more than seven and a half hours a day with such devices, compared with less than six and a half hours five years ago, when the study was last conducted. And that does not count the hour and a half that youths spend texting, or the half-hour they talk on their cellphones.
And because so many of them are multitasking — say, surfing the Internet while listening to music — they pack on average nearly 11 hours of media content into that seven and a half hours.
The study’s findings shocked its authors, who had concluded in 2005 that use could not possibly grow further, and confirmed the fears of many parents whose children are constantly tethered to media devices. It found, moreover, that heavy media use is associated with several negatives, including behavior problems and lower grades.
“This is a stunner,” said Donald F. Roberts, a Stanford communications professor emeritus who is one of the authors of the study. “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.”
I thought the most telling comments in the story came from a mom who had let her baby son watch Baby Einstein videos. “By the time he was 4, he had all these math and science DVDs, and he was clicking through by himself, and he learned to read and do math early,” she told the Times. “So if we’d had the conversation then, I would have said they were great educational tools.”
But now her son is 9 and obsessed with video games, which are displacing all his other interests including real friends. So, the mom has limited his screen time to weekends only.
With four kids from ages 21 to 11, I have personally seen the surge in electronic usage in children’s lives. For Christmas, my 11-year-old daughter asked for an iPod, a computer and a cell phone. (On the other hand, her twin brother asked for a toothbrush. He got the toothbrush.)
Many of their pals have cell phones and are adept at texting already. Many also have inherited mom’s or dad’s old laptop.
I suspect many academic studies will explore how this online and screen world affected this generation’s ability to communicate and develop relationships.
In 25 years, we can discuss those studies on this blog, although we will be doing so either by mind meld or at least by 3-D holographic video-conferencing.
I don’t think we’ll see positive findings in those studies. What do you think?