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.
And, 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 in late January.
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 theiromputers, 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.
I wrote about this issue for Boston.com's Child Caring blog back in January, and just yesterday got word of a study by Nannies4hire, saying that children who are cared for by nannies spend less than 2 hours a day online or in front of the TV. According to their press release: "In a survey of 1,000 caregivers, the positive influence of a nanny in the house is clearly felt, as children ages 8-18 are only spending 1.6 hours a day on computers, watching TV, listening to music on iPods or mp3 players, and playing video games, almost 6 hours less than the average child."
Which seems great, until you think about it for a bit. The Kaiser study found an uptick in media usage when kids reached 11 to 14 years old, but how many 14-year-olds spend their days with a nanny?
"The number one goal of a nanny is the health and happiness of the child they supervise," company founder Candi Wingate said in a statement. "They are not paid to watch a child whittle away the day with video games; they are paid to contribute to emotional, intellectual and physical well-being of the children in their care."
I'm pretty sure that most parents, stay-at-home or otherwise, and most teachers would take exception to that. I know my teenagers teachers aren't being paid to watch them "whittle away the day with video games," and yet kids manage to spend plenty of time online anyway -- or texting on their phones. So the nanny study? Sorry, but I don't buy it. There may be plenty of great reasons to go the nanny route, but this isn't necessarily one of them.
Parents, how much time does your child spend with the TV or computer on?