When I was growing up we usually had one or two TVs in the house. A black and white in my mom’s bedroom and usually a small color one downstairs. Although my cousins always had a big color console TV, my mom never felt any great need to spend a fortune on one. She also didn’t spend money on stereo equipment. Or an Atari console to play video games such as pong or asteroids. Or a computer. Or most other electronic devices that were hitting the market in the 1970s and early 1980s.
We did have a handheld game called Football from Mattel, but that’s because our grandfather, who sold toys, brought several home to us. For those not familiar with the game, it featured red LED lights that moved across a screen in a quasi-football formation. You had to get your little red guy around the other team’s red guys. I was pretty good at the game, too.
After a while, though, the game became boring so I usually went back to playing outside or reading books. All in all, I probably spent less than two hours a day on electronic devices. My, how things have changed.
American children ages 8-18 spend an average of 6.5 hours using some form of electronic media every single day of the week, reports The Washington Post. But when you include multitasking, such as listening to music while writing on the computer, kids are spending the equivalent of 8.5 hours a day, reports the Post on the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation report “Generation M: Media in the Lives of Children.” (pdf) While only 16 percent of kids multitasked in a 1999 sister study, 26 percent of children did in the new study.
What does all this media exposure mean for our children? “We are conducting an experiment on this generation of children and we have no idea what the effects will be,” New York Sen. Hilary Rodham Clinton told the press during the report’s unveiling.
Unfortunately, the study failed to establish a strong connection between media exposure and learning. The only conclusion the authors were willing to draw? That while electronic media exposure doesn’t necessarily hurt grades, those who read print material do seem to get better letter grades.
Not surprisingly, children in homes without rules enforcing media usage are developing differently than those who do. Children in homes with strict rules tend to read more books, for example. Those who use electronics the most seem the least satisfied with their lives.
Here are some other tidbits from the study:
- 68 percent of all children have a television in their room.
- 54 percent of all children have a VCR or DVD player in their room, up from 36 percent in 1999.
- 36 percent of all children have cable or satellite TV in their room, up from 29 percent.
- 63 percent of families eat meals with the TV on.
- 51 percent of American homes leave the TV on even when no one is watching.
- 53 percent of children grades 7-12 report no family rules about watching TV.
- 46 percent of children report rules on watching TV, but only 20 percent say those rules are regularly enforced.
- 83 percent of American kids own a video game console. 21 percent report rules governing playing time.
- 86 percent of kids have a computer in their home. Only 28 percent report rules about how much time they can spend on it.
Not surprisingly, wealthier families tend to have more media tools at home than poorer ones. While it’s pretty clear that exposure to television is bad news for infants and toddlers, no one really knows what the long-term impact will be on children over 8. Without a closer examination as to what media is used by a child and how it impacts learning and thought processes, this is pretty much an open-ended experiment on our children that will continue to evolve over the next couple generations. In the meantime, my wife and I plan to keep strict control over our son’s media exposure.
(Thanks go to Mark Sicignano at Families and Technology for alerting me to the new Kaiser report.)