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Screening the screens: How to deal with our children's technology overload

 

Charity Vogel

The Buffalo News

June 16, 2008
 

Anyone who’s ever spent any time around a kid recognizes it: The Too-Much-TV Look. Eyes glazed. Mouth slightly ajar. Expression vacant. Hello? Is anybody home in there?

Used to be, that weird, spaced-out look was all parents had to worry about when it came to their children’s media consumption. And the fix was easy: when you saw it appear, you snapped off the set.

Ah, those were the good old days.

Now, TV’s far from the only screen most kids spend time in front of each day.

In an ever-expanding digital media universe where 24/7 technology is the name of the game, many kids spend more time interacting with media – from tiny hand-held devices to big-screen TVs –than ever before.

It’s a reality parents have to deal with. The question becomes: How?

“We live in a media culture, a media society, and the sooner we find a median way through that, the better,” said Dade Hayes, who just wrote a book about his daughter’s experiences with TV.

At the same time, amid this technology explosion, two significant changes are taking place in the popular culture when it comes to which kids are using media – and how they use it.

First: Babies and toddlers have become the latest boom industry for media companies, with TV programming, DVDs, even computer programs now marketed specifically to this youngest group of watchers, those 2 and under.

Call it the “Baby Einstein” phenomenon – and it’s growing.

Second: Among older children and teens, media has become an all-hours, multitasking way of life. They’re on the Internet while watching TV, instant messaging while listening to music and playing with their iPhones, or text messaging while they play video games.

“They are always, always connected,” said Mary Jonmaire, who works with children at the EduKids center in Orchard Park. “Facebook, iPhones, the Internet – they never stop.

“It’s a whole different world out there.”

The latest research on American children and their media consumption shows that kids today, no matter what their ages, are more tuned-in than those in previous generations.

They use media more of the time – and use it in different ways.

Some observers say there are good aspects to the trend –primarily educational and safety ones.

Others, including parents, educators and medical experts, said they are deeply concerned.

“As a parent, it’s really easy to lose control now because it’s everywhere,” said Hayes, author of the book “Anytime Playdate.”

When it comes to TV time alone, kids today watch basically the same amount as –or even a little less than – their peers a few years back did.

Fully 81 percent of American kids between 8 and 18 watch TV in a typical day. On average, they spend just over three hours watching each day.

“On weeknights, he doesn’t watch too much TV,” said Cassandra Gilmore- Austin, a working mom from Buffalo whose son, Tyler, is 9. “But on the weekends he might watch TV, maybe 5 hours on Friday and Saturday.”

But despite TV time holding steady, in 2005, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that kids actually spend more time with “screens” in front of them than ever before.

The screens come in various forms, from computer and video game and TV displays to movies and videos to handheld phones with messaging devices.

The main difference, the Kaiser study found, is that nowadays young people “multitask” with their media choices, and so are able to “pack increasing amounts of media content into the same amount of time” each day.

The raw numbers are staggering: Kids between the ages of 8 and 18 spend a total of 44ø hours per week with a screen in front of them.

That’s the equivalent of a full work week, plus overtime.

Nowhere has the creep of “screen time” been seen more steadily and profoundly than in the very youngest age demographic.

Babies and toddlers used to have few options for on-screen programming. There was “Sesame Street,” but that was geared more toward the preschool set. Over time, more programs for children as young as 2 appeared and became successful –from “Blue’s Clues” to “Teletubbies” to “Barney” and “Dora the Explorer.”

Now, entire channels on cable TV offer programming geared to children, even babies.

And “Baby Einstein,” a series of DVDs, CDs and toy items marketed to parents of babies as young as 3 months old, has rocketed to international success with its claims to parents that it can stimulate infants on the path to lifelong learning.

Sara Sade, director of the EduKids center in Amherst, said parents are vulnerable to these messages because they feel they need to raise their children to be competitive right from the start.

“They want to make sure their child has the edge –at 3,” said Sade, who added that TV and DVDs are not part of the child-care program at EduKids. “It’s become an increasingly competitive environment for kids, even for babies.”

It’s a world away from “Sesame Street,” said Hayes.

“The sheer consumption of media across so many different platforms is just so vastly different,” the author said. “We have back-seat TV now – they’re beaming TV for kids into cars. Kids are watching episodes of TV programs on cell phones.”

Data bears that out. A 2006 Kaiser study found that 83 percent of children under age 6 use screen media every day, and they watch it for close to 2 hours per day.

Tuned-in teens

Teenagers, meanwhile, are packing more and more screen time into each day.

Young people between 8 and 18 spend 6ø hours each day with media, according to a 2005 study by the Kaiser Foundation.

But, because a good part of that time is spent “multitasking” with more than one screen at a time, they are actually packing 8ø hours of media consumption into that time period, the study revealed.

At the YMCA in Western New York, those who work with young people said they can clearly see the impact of nonstop technology consumption on kids.

“Attention span is the No. 1 thing,” said Matt Hilton, vice president of school-age child care operations for the YMCA in the Buffalo Niagara region. “We see kids so focused on the Gameboy, the computer, the TV – they’re very locked down to a specific thing. Once they’ve found what their looking for –winning on Gameboy or whatever it is –they’re constantly looking for the next thing that will make them satisfied.”

Hilton said that at the Ellicott-Masten YMCA, which he directs, children in after-school programs are involved in outdoor play or hands-on activities, as a way of getting them away from screens in their playtime.

“If they’re outside using their imagination, the creativity just expands, and the attention level expands too,” Hilton said. “It’s not just instant gratification.”

Media and health

When it comes to children and media use, doctors have left no doubt: It’s not advisable. The American Academy of Pediatricians recommends that children not watch any TV or other screened media until they are 2 or older.

Doctors see the overuse of TV and other screened media as a factor in many of the nation’s pressing health problems –from rampant obesity to high blood pressure, from stress to poor physical fitness, from diabetes to poor self-esteem, from suicide to academic problems.

Some well-publicized studies have linked TV watching in children to later attention-deficit problems, as well.

“The media cut across virtually every concern pediatricians and parents have about kids,” said Dr. Victor Strasburger, a professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine and a member of the academy’s committee that developed the recommendation. “Sex, drugs, obesity, eating disorders, suicide, school performance –the media can play a significant role in all of that.”

Is the pediatricians’ no-TV-under-2 recommendation being followed?

Not very well. In fact, many parents say they haven’t heard of it.

Gilmore-Austin, Tyler’s mom, said she’s never talked with her pediatrician’s office about media. “I never heard them speak about media use. It was always physical health only,” she said. “When you think about it, it’s kind of sad.”

Strasburger puts much of the responsibility on parents.

“Parents are basically clueless,” he said, “when it comes to estimating the impact of media on their kids. On the list of 150 things you want to fight with your kids about, TV is about No. 142.”

The good points

Some argue that TV and other screened media are beneficial to kids.

Among parents, 66 percent said their child has imitated a positive behavior off of a TV program, 2006 Kaiser research found.

Gilmore-Austin said her son Tyler imitated TV from an early age – even though his viewing was limited to “Barney” and “Teletubbies” – and she quickly learned to watch with him so that she could control what he saw.

“He would repeat what they say – if they were performing, he would perform too. He would copy,” she said. “That’s why it was important for me to watch too.”

Within limits, said Strasburger, there is some children’s programming that is of high quality.

“Those of us who take potshots at the media often fail to acknowledge the good points of the media,” he said. “At the moment, [children’s media] is about 90 percent negative. But the 10 percent that’s positive is really very good.”

Despite her sometimes problematic fixation on the show, author Hayes said his daughter Margot learned some valuable lessons from “Dora” – words of Spanish, for example – that she wouldn’t otherwise have known.

And new TV programs are now teaching kids other languages, as well, such as Mandarin, he said.

“They couldn’t get enough of it,” Hayes said of his observations of children enjoying the show.

Making it work

Most people who pay attention to the issue agree: TV and other screens are a fact of life for today’s kids, and will continue to be so.

In practical terms, that means parents and families must make hard choices about how to deal with media –because media isn’t going away.

One mom, Gilmore-Austin, said she balances her son’s TV time with other activities.

She likes having Tyler in YMCA programs for after-school hours because it cuts down on his media time, and instead gets him up and participating in outdoors and physical activity.

That and reading have been her two strategies to manage Tyler’s screen time, she said.

“What I have done with Tyler is, actually letting him choose a book, and then –if it’s appropriate –I’ll get it for him and then sit down and read it with him,” she said. “Kids really just want your attention.”

Hayes, the author, said that families can also make TV work for them by teaching their children –early on –to be critical consumers of technology.

“My argument is for media literacy,” he said.

Hayes saw this work in his own family. He said his daughter grew out of a “Dora” fixation and into a bright young girl of 4ø who watches TV, within set limits.

Parents will never be able to escape from technology entirely, Hayes said, so it’s best to try to find a middle ground that’s realistic and workable for the family.

“What else is happening in the home?” he asked. “TV exposure in the absence of any reading is a bad thing. But if you surround TV [with other activities], it can still be a good thing.

“At least I think.”

 

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