I recently attended a middle school band concert. At least one third of the children performing in the various bands used their cell phones when not on stage. Astoundingly, many of these pre-teens had smartphones that enabled them to browse the Internet as well as text friends. I even noted that some were texting on stage when their instruments were not part of the performance. When it comes to electronic media, things are changing so fast that parents are lagging behind. Apparently, so too are band directors, teachers and school administrators.
In my newly-released book, Children at Risk, I note, “Today’s children and youth live in an environment inundated by endlessly proliferating types of media.” Some experts call it a “tsunami of media;” others call it “media clutter.” A new study produced by the Kaiser Family Foundation – whose studies are among the largest and most comprehensive information available about media use among American youth – reports that “most youth say they have no rules about how much time they can spend with TV, video games or computers.” As a result, daily media use by the nation’s 8-to-18-year-olds has increased dramatically over the past five years. Children and teens now spend the equivalent of a day’s work using their electronic devices. They are “connected” to electronic media an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes and by their common use of “media multitasking” (watching television or playing video games while texting or listening to music on an iPod) they “actually manage to pack a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes worth of media content into those 7 hours.” Most alarming, seven in ten young people have a TV in their bedroom and over half have a video game console in their room.
It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to realize that these youths are spending more time with media than in any other of their daily activities. Only three in ten of these youngsters have rules regarding their use of media. Often those who set rules, according to their children, fail to enforce them. Not surprisingly, the children of those parents who set rules spend “nearly 3 hours less media per day (2:52) than those with no rules.”
Parents should not be surprised at the Kaiser report; they have saturated their homes with electronic media. The report reveals that the typical American home has “an average of 3.8 televisions, 2.8 DVD or VCR players, 1digital video recorder, 2.2 CD players, 2.5 radios, 2 computers, and 2.3 console video game players.” The report indicates that those youths who are highly connected to media have lower levels of personal happiness and contentment. And, it should be noted, that “the relationship between media exposure and personal contentment withstands controls for other possibly relevant factors such as age, gender, race, parent education, and single vs. two-parent households.”
In short, the Kaiser report is a wake-up call for parents. Too much of even good things can be very bad; too many of the nation’s youths are hooked on media they connect first thing in the morning and they don’t disconnect until parents insist on lights out.
In Children at Risk, I note that six prominent medical groups (American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, American Psychological Association, American Medical Association, American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Psychiatric Association) are united in warning parents about the harms to children of too much media. The National Institutes of Health and Common Sense Media, a nonprofit advocacy group, are urging parents to “turn off the TV” because of 30-years of research indicating a correlation between greater media exposure and adverse health outcomes for children, including drug/alcohol use, childhood obesity, sexual behavior and low academic achievement. The Brookings Institution devoted an entire issue of their journal The Future of Children to “Children and the Electronic Media.” They asked, “Do we [leave] the nation’s youth to the wiles of Madison Avenue, the purveyors of smut and violence, and Internet Predators?”
It is imperative for parents to educate themselves and know more about programming, rating systems, and current technology in order to help their children make reasoned and deliberate choices regarding their use of media. It is up to parents and other responsible adults to connect with today’s youth where they are – “riding the airwaves” – in order to teach them to understand when negative messages are being aimed at them and offer them “positive messages that compete with and offer attractive alternatives to the negative, unhealthful, or illegal messages that others offer.” This effort is not optional. It is an essential part of the task we face in rebuilding the family into the safe haven that it was meant to be for our children.