The children of America spend 7½ hours a day plugged in to their phones and iPods and MP3 players, gaming, or otherwise engaged with electronic media. That astonishing number, up more than an hour from the last time the Kaiser Family Foundation surveyed children's media use five years ago, raises big questions about how our children live and whether that plugged-in life is healthful or wise.
Here are some key findings from the Kaiser survey, which polled 2,002 children ages 8 to 18:
*Mobile media is driving the trend towards increased media use. In five years, the proportion of children with cellphones has risen from 39 percent to 66 percent, and iPod/MP3 player use has risen from 18 percent to 66 percent. Kids now spend more time watching TV, listening to music, and playing games on their phones than they do talking on them. (Texting wasn't included in the survey numbers, oddly enough.)
*About 30 percent of children say their parents set rules about how much time they can spend watching TV, playing video games, or using a computer.
*Two thirds of young people say the TV is on at home during meals, and 45 percent say the TV is on most of the time.
*Seventy-one percent of kids have a TV in their bedroom.
*Half of heavy media users (more than 16 hours of media a day) say they usually get fair or poor grades (C's or lower), compared with 23 percent of light media users (less than 3 hours of media a day).
*Media multitasking increases kids' exposure. Forty percent of middle schoolers and high schoolers say they use another medium most of the time when they're listening to music, using a computer, or watching TV.
*About half of the children polled say they use media most or some of the time while doing homework.
These numbers are a wake-up call for parents, because many of these media-use behaviors are associated with health and social problems, including teenage depression, obesity, poor grades, and struggles with drugs or alcohol.
Some suggestions for stemming the media intrusion:
Ban the TV from kids' bedrooms. Kids who have TVs in their room are less likely to exercise or eat healthful foods, and they get worse grades, according to a 2008 study on kids and TV from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. "Increased media use is associated with obesity," says Edward Abramson, a clinical psychologist in Lafayette, Calif., and author of Emotional Eating. Make TV-watching a family experience so that you can monitor time spent and content. "If a kid is going to watch TV, he can watch it in the living room or family room," Abramson says.
Turn off the TV during dinner. Multiple studies have found that children who eat dinner with their parents regularly do better at school and have fewer problems with drugs, alcohol, and early sexual activity. "Dinner time is one of the best times for families to connect," says Gwenn Schurgin O'Keeffe, a pediatrician in Wayland, Mass., who writes the PediatricsNow blog. "There is protective value. If you can't do it at dinner, do it at breakfast or lunch."
Ask your kids about their "media day." Just as you would ask them who they sat with at lunch, ask them if they "friended" anyone new. If they're glum, ask them if someone texted them something that upset them. Diane Levin, coauthor of So Sexy So Soon, told me that it's important to watch media with your kids and talk with them about what you do and don't like about their music and videos.
Set rules for your kids' media consumption. That includes how much time per day and what kind of content. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than 2 hours a day of screen media for all kids. Pediatrician Donald Shifrin recently gave me good advice on how to grow a backbone and set media rules that work for your family.
Turn off your phone. Be a role model and unplug yourself from the phone, BlackBerry, TV, and laptop. Plug in to your kids instead.
I know I'm more than guilty of that last one; with smartphones, it's all too easy to check E-mail while at the playground or the pool. O'Keeffe says she, too, succumbs to the media urge. "My family would be mocking me: 'What are you tweeting now?' " she says. "I started to realize that you don't connect with people when you're hyperconnected like that." She's cut back on Twitter and Facebook use and now leaves the computer off on weekends. And her family will bring along just one cellphone when they're out and about together. "My kids have seen the change," O'Keeffe says. "They say I seem less hyper."
OK, lesson taken. I'll try hard not to slip the phone out of my pocket when I'm at the park this afternoon with the kids. And when they're in front of a screen, I'll try to make sure we're going for quality, not just quantity.
How are you managing your children's screen time? Please let us know what works for you.