Today’s children see the world through and on a screen

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.

Children today are growing up in a world of screens. (Photo/NYT)

Children today are growing up in a world of screens. (Photo/NYT)

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?

21 comments Add your comment


January 21st, 2010
6:36 am

Geez Mom, you spend a lot of time on a computer doing things that weren’t possible in printed newspapers. Get the kid a computer and iPod.

It’s not like she’s going to run out and buy a stack of 45s (grooved, vinyl plastic disks used at one time to record music – for those who didn’t know).


January 21st, 2010
6:42 am

Look at teh book Grown up Digital. Digital natives were born with the internet and now are smarter, better users of information.

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Let it be

January 21st, 2010
7:40 am

You know, it’s not good or bad. It just is. Our society is always changing and the environment in which children grow up is, too.


January 21st, 2010
8:11 am

“It’s not good or bad”????? No wonder students cannot read, write and communicate effectively. They don’t read, which requires the person to DO something instead of being passively fed information. No wonder kids won’t do the tedious work– they expect to be entertained and not have to make an effort to think. There are some benefits to electronic devices. But READING is still the foundation of all knowledge and learning. Better readers are better writers, mathmeticians, scientists, etc. There is so much knowledge out there now that if you can’t read and comprehand, you will never make it . If you can read well, you can do anything well. If you can’t read, you will be behind forever. Somewhere there has to be a realization of this point to come from parents. It is harder and harder to get students to read or write anything– because they are used to a screen doing it for them and taking shortcuts with the language.

I am a voice crying in the wilderness I know. But I stand by my assessment. Turn off the TV, phones, video, games, etc., and make your children read instead. You may suffer now but later you will be glad you did.

Gwinnett Parent

January 21st, 2010
8:17 am

A lot of the teenagers I run into today are lacking communication skills. It is amazing how many of them bump into me in public, because they cannot walk and text at the same time. The lack of communication skills is a result of communicating soley through electronic media. My daughter knows how to use a computer, as well as several other electronic media forms. However, she is limited to no more than
1 1/2 hrs of screen time a day. This rule is lifted only if there is a homework concern. We believe in balance. I do not want my child to be the anti-social freak that has only cyber friends(world),surfs the net in the middle of the night, or games for hours at a time(ewwww).

Reality Check

January 21st, 2010
8:45 am

Folks, all you gotta do to see what a problem the electronics age has wrought is to go anywhere there are a fair number of people walking around and observe how many of these people are obese. And it’s not just older folks, it’s the young people that have a major problem with their weight. These people need to get out from behind their computer/TV/Sterio/iPod, etc., etc., get out on the playground and run, play ball, exercise. We’re becoming a country of fatties and it’s not only causing major physical problems, it’s causing emotional and mental problems with people not interacting with other people and replacing them with their electronics. Wake up parents…..tell your kids to go outside and play and if they say they don’t have anything to play with, tell them to make something!!!!!

College Students

January 21st, 2010
8:56 am

I think you are over-reacting to a non-issue. Every generation complains about younger generations can’t communicate or can’t do this or that.

Unlike those generations that grew up with TV and VCR, today’s electronic media are indeed two-way communication medium. Unlike TV/radio, youngsters DO have to read the information – and make judgement about the quality of materials.

Some young people don’t have people skills – but that was also the case10, 20, 50, 100, years ago. They will learn, and they will learn it different ways. At the same time, older generations will have to modify their ways as well.

drew (former teacher)

January 21st, 2010
8:56 am

I disgree…new technologies are both good AND bad. Rather than “Grown Up Digital”, in which author Don Tapscott comes across like a cheerleader for the “net-generation” and presents all new technologies as positive, I’d recommend the writings of those such as Marshall McCluhan, Harold Innis and Neil Postman. These writers understand that technologies are never neutral, they always giveth AND taketh away. And often the ways in which they “taketh away” are not discussed, or even noticed, until it’s too late.

As it pertains to education, I can see a future where education takes place in the home, via technology, not at schools. I can see schools (the actual buildings, that is) becoming learning centers, providing adult education/training and assisting students who are having trouble getting it at home. Is this good or bad? If you believe that teachers are the most significant factor in a person’s education, you’d have to say this is bad, right? No more discipline problems though, right? And just imagine the savings in teacher salaries, adminstrative costs, text books, buses, etc. But then how would this effect the acquisition of social skills? Good AND bad.

It’s interesting that schooling today is done very much in the same manner as school was done 50 (or 100) years ago…throw 20-30 kids in a room with a teacher, and go at it. The tools and technologies may have changed, but for the most part, schools haven’t changed (with the exception of the ways in which student misbehavior is addressed).

I’ve always assumed that because “education” is the largest bureaucracy in America, there’s simply no way to either kill it, or make any significant reform. Yeah…they’ll come out with some new education buzzwords and concepts every year or so, to make it look like some type of reform is happening, but nothing significant will ever happen. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the “net-generation” will make schools obsolete. And that would be good. And, of course, it would also be bad.

what's right for kids???

January 21st, 2010
9:50 am

I think, too, that the imagination is getting lost. Kids have such beautiful minds; we should let them use them! Play pretend games; dig to China with a spoon; swing up to the sun; plant gardens together. There are millions of things to do that inspire imagination and creativity. Why leave it to automation?

drew (former teacher)

January 21st, 2010
11:30 am

As pointed out by College Students above, computers and the internet are a VAST improvement over the television environment, which has done (and continues to do) more damage to “thinking” than any medium in modern times. With the exception of games, music and videos, computers do generally require it’s users to READ. And I think most educators would agree that reading provides the foundation upon which all higher education rests.

V for Vendetta

January 21st, 2010
11:35 am

Some of this sounds an awful lot like Chicken Little. I don’t think technology is nearly as villainous as it is often made out to be. To be quite honest, I think a lot of parents have found a conveniant surrogate to raise their children. It’s a lot easier to let kids marinate in digital fun than it is to actually play with them.

Does that sound like a horrible thing to say? Of course it is, but it doesn’t make it any less true. In the past, parents had every opportunity to be bad or neglectful, but nothing has ever offered them the chance to be horrible like technology does. It can literally replace human interaction in a child’s life.

Sure, I’ll admit that I bring along the old portable DVD player from time to time when we go to restaurants and what not, but it is nothing more than a temorary distraction. Imagination still reigns supreme in my house, and books are still the gateways to entertainment. My child might not always go to bed on time, but, when she does, she falls asleep surrounded by dozens of books.

No amount of technology can replace or overcome an involved parent.

mystery poster

January 21st, 2010
12:25 pm

Did you hear that Baby Einstein has had to offer refunds to anyone who purchased their DVDs? Turns out they’re not really making kids smarter. That certainly didn’t surprise me, I’ve been laughing for years at the hovering over-parents who thought they could make their kids smarter by simply plopping them in front of the TV.

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January 21st, 2010
1:28 pm

A few hundred years from now man will have no vocal chords as there is no longer the need to speak. Most fingers will have morphed to stubs while thumbs become longer and thinner in order to “text” better.

Veteran teacher, 2

January 21st, 2010
7:01 pm

And yet we give them multiple choice tests on paper!

say what?

January 21st, 2010
10:31 pm

from conception we start using technology with our kids. Kids no longer know how to play cards or board games unless they are on computers. No wonder kids are diagnosed ADHD or with some social behavior problem- if it doesn’t stimulate at the push of a button, make a sound, or entertain kids don’t know what to do with themselves. Parents don’t know what to do either as society has said use these new gadgets to make your kid smart, but pushing buttons, and using someone else’s software is really not showing intelligence. Just shows that Pavlov and his dog experiement was right.

My 18 y/o nephew (as most adolescent) cannot carry on a conversation with my mother, because she does not text, and he lacks the social skills to know that communication comes in varying styles.

Ole Guy

January 22nd, 2010
1:40 pm

One, then, is to conclude that the myriad problems in pub ed…the problems upon which buckets of public monies are being tossed…are largely self-inflicted. Meanwhile, esteemed commenters, with nom de plumes like “let it be” (Beatles?), and, my favorite, “College Students”, seem to feel that all is well, that the grand fiasco will somehow self-correct all by itself. My God, what kind of people are these? The Titanic is sinking, and all they can do is sit on their derriers and smile the ignorant smile of resigned doom.

With idiots like this, we don’t need politicians to screw things up; the idiots seem quite content.


January 22nd, 2010
3:16 pm

I agree with Reality. The obesity problem comes from sitting in the house playing video games, on the computer, or watching television.

My students lack in imagination, and become quickly bored with reading a textbook, or creating an activity that doesn’t require the computer. They have no idea what the card catalog is, or an almanac, or an encyclopedia.

And their essay writing skills are non-existent. They write like they text message. It is sad.


January 22nd, 2010
4:12 pm

Who uses a card catalog? That is like saying we are all going to hell in a handbasket because we no longer use a rotary phone.

Ole Guy

January 22nd, 2010
6:44 pm

Mift, you have just exemplified one of the major problems which, as I have indicated previously, is completely and totally self-inflicted. In other words, it is precisely this kind of attitude which both leads to, and magnifies the problems of a current generation.

Danteach wrote absolutely nothing about USING a card catalog…only about any KNOWLEDGE of just what a card catalog is (or, for the most part…was).

Idiots like you grow up (certainly not in the mental development area) thinking that the world starts and stops with you. Would you believe that a lot of neat things were developed before you came along? TV programing, one upon a time, was in black and white; they only had a few channels for viewing, and the viewing was for only a few hours a day…how bout dat!

The toys which you enjoy today are possible only because the “old fashion stuff”, like card catalogs, was developed, by generations with open minds and imaginations, so that generations, like yours, could make idiotic comments about the toys of yesteryear.

There’s a lot of things that existed on the planet before you came along…there’s a lot of stuff that happened before you came along…it’s called HISTORY; because you, and too many people, like you, fail to acknowledge that, too many people, LIKE YOU, refuse to even consider breaking a few barriers to the ignorance and stupidity which, today, prevails.

Try not making such rediculous comments.