Kids are now spending most of their free time on the internet, listening to mp3 players and playing video games, according to research by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit in Menlo Park, California, which asked 2,000 3rd to 12th graders to keep media diaries for a week.
Because many new media devices are portable, children often use more than one at a time, compounding their total hours’ electronic exposure per day to a combined 8.33 hours staring at something with a backlight.
The genie’s certainly out of the bottle, says Dr. Laurie Zelinger, a child psychologist and play therapist in Cedarhurst, New York. “Desktops, laptops, net books, smart phones, portable game systems...they all have video, photo, instant messaging, and social networking capabilities,” she says. “Watch kids at a restaurant: their mouths aren’t moving, but their fingers are.”
Children’s drift from the real world to its avatar is becoming a major problem, Zelinger says. “The electronic forms of life eclipse time spent in physical activity. It also reduces face-to-face communication, and as result children are not developing their social skills.”
Oftentimes, parents are doing nothing about it. Roughly half of parents, 53 percent, don’t impose any rules on their children’s screen time, although parental intervention can have a substantial impact. The offspring of the 20 percent of parents who enforce rules regarding the TV report two hours less online than those whose parents don’t set boundaries.
These boundaries don’t have to be draconian, Zelinger says. She suggests computers should be kept in a central location in the home, children should have clear time limits on multimedia usage, and online privileges should be earned. And parents should lead by example, something most don’t seem to be doing. According to Kaiser’s report, 63 percent of kids say the TV is usually on during mealtimes and half say the TV is on most or all of the time.
Instead, “have the discipline to not watch TV during dinner time. Suggest other activities, such as playing games together, reading, or playing outside,” counsels Molly Gold, founder of Go Mom!, a family time management consultant in Apex, North Carolina.
Setting a new standard won’t change kids’ behavior overnight, so be patient, Gold says. Just be clear about what your family’s rules are. “Make a chart if you need to, pictures or words to move into the box of time used and break it down into 30-minute blocks so they can see how they can spread out their time among their favorite mediums,” she suggests.
Gold even goes so far as to demand her children interface with the great outdoors. “We require outside playtime when the weather is nice,” she says. “For older kids, we encourage them to meet up with friends as often as they can in real life. We don't allow our kids more than one or two hours’ media time daily, and that's collective of all media sources.” Keep it up and before long you’ll have set a reasonable balance of behavior, sociability, and multimedia savvy, Gold says.