Children now spend more time online than most adults spend at work, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health care foundation in Menlo Park, California.
Eight to 18 year olds spend an average seven hours and 38 minutes online every day — and that’s outside using the Internet for homework assignments. That’s more than 53 hours per week when you include weekends.
Multimedia devices are ubiquitous. Two thirds of children now own a cell phone and 76 percent own an mp3 player. Many of these devices support multimedia content: Kids spend more time watching TV on their phones (49 minutes per day) than they do talking on them (33 minutes).
Why is this a problem? Because heavy multimedia users get lower grades. Almost half of heavy users report low grades (C or below) compared with 23 percent of light users. Heavy users spend an incredible 16 hours per day online, compared to light users’ three hours. And yet most parents, 70 percent, aren’t setting any guidelines for how much screen time their kids are getting.
Compounding the problem, “Parents are clueless about what their children are doing online — and what it’s doing to them,” said Michael Rich, a pediatrician and director of the Center on Media and Child Health at the Children’s Hospital Boston, on a Webcast corresponding with the study’s release. And with the rise in the number of devices kids use to get their media fix, “There are now so many more ways for parents to be clueless.”
Media quality is a whole other issue. Fifty years’ research shows that violent and sexual content in the media leads to increased anxiety, decreased sensitivity to violence, and earlier “sexual debuts” in children. “We don’t know how they’re related, but it gives rise for concern,” Rich said.
Simply cutting kids’ access to online content isn’t a practical option, though — like it or not, multimedia interaction is part of what defines the next generation. “You can’t cover their eyes — you have to teach them how to see,” said Linda Burch, chief education and strategy officer of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit in San Francisco, California, that educates parents on how to structure their children’s media use.
Kaiser’s study shows that setting rules matters — children whose parents set any rules at all report average daily media use of under three hours per day. “Clearly, time limits make sense,” Burch suggested, alongside other rules such as no media in the bedroom and no texting or TV at mealtimes.
Burch described one school in Philadelphia that took charge of the situation by striking a balance. Frustrated with streams of exhausted kids showing up every morning, the principal called a meeting with parents. His solution was a program called CCC-911, for Computer and Cell phone Curfew. Parents now text their kids at 9 p.m. and tell them to turn their phones off and charge them. Sounds like that wouldn’t work with your kid? It does when all the parents in your community do it, she said.