- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 9, 2005

The Internet. Game Boy. Xbox. Satellite TV. A hundred channels, on-demand and in every room, now in high definition.

No doubt about it, technology is enticing — and sometimes educational — entertainment. It is a realm that is changing rapidly, breaking boundaries of sound, graphics, speed and themes practically as fast as new video games come on the market.

So it is no wonder that a recent study released by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit health care analysis group, found that children ages 8 to 18 are spending almost as much time looking at a screen each week as they would on a full-time job.

The study, which tracked more than 2,000 children in third through 12th grades, found that the subjects spent an average of 6.5 hours a day using media. More than three hours of that time was spent watching TV and DVDs. Another hour was spent on the computer, and nearly an hour was spent playing video games.

Drew Altman, president and chief executive of the Kaiser Family Foundation, calls it “media multitasking.” Donald Shifrin, a pediatrician in Bellevue, Wash., and chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ committee on communication, calls it a way of life.

“Most parents haven’t been looking at total screen time,” Dr. Shifrin says. “But as the future evolves with all of these wonderful things that youngsters have, they will. We are going from an era of appointments with screens to the era of opportunities with screens. Screen time is a movable feast.”

Dr. Shifrin says it is likely that the average adolescent is getting even more screen time than the Kaiser poll shows. Just looking at the amount of time the 12-to-18-year-old segment spends with media — throwing into the mix technology such as instant messaging and cellular-phone text messaging — the number would be much higher, Dr. Shifrin says.

“We may be grossly underestimating it,” he says.

Jolene Ivey, a mother of five sons in Cheverly, can vouch for that prediction. She says her son Alex, 16, “has a keyboard attached to his fingertips.”

“I do stay on him about it,” she says, “but he has a love affair going on with the computer. He spends a lot of time doing his Photoshop program and moderating discussions about anime. He says he is learning leadership. I think it is a waste of time. But you pick your fights. He is doing well in school. He is a balanced person. I make him turn it off and interact with the family.”

Mrs. Ivey says she has kept screen time to a slower pace by not bringing certain items into the house. The family has three televisions, for instance, but no cable. When there are fewer choices, there is less desire to watch TV, she says. Two of the boys have portable Game Boys, but there is no video-game system such as GameCube or PlayStation.

“They can get that when they buy their own house,” Mrs. Ivey says. “It is also OK if they want to play when they go over to a friend’s house.”

Too much time?

It is hard to gauge how much screen time is too much, Dr. Shifrin says. Some games are interactive and are tools for learning. There are educational television shows as well as violent shows. Sprinkled throughout those shows are a plethora of commercials designed to get children to spend, spend, spend.

The American Academy of Pediatrics’ most recent policy statement on television was issued in 2001. In it, the doctors recommended no TV for children younger than 2 and no more than one to two hours a day of quality programming for preschoolers and children of elementary school age.

Because formulating policy statements is a years-long process and because the technology available changes so quickly, the academy has not yet come up with a formal policy on total screen time, Dr. Shifrin says.

“When you say, ‘How much is too much?’ there are a whole gamut of answers,” he says.

Dr. Shifrin says parents should look for signs their children are getting too much screen time, including a lack of interest in other activities. He says he often asks adolescents this question: “What do you like to do with your friends?”

“If a kid says something like ‘I don’t have any friends; my friends are all online,’ that, to me, is a sign of social isolation,” Dr. Shifrin says.

Douglas Gentile, assistant professor of psychology at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, and the director of research for the National Institute on Media and the Family, says his concern isn’t so much what children are watching; it is what they are missing.

“For every hour a child is in front of a screen, he is not reading, exploring, creating or doing any number of other things that might have a long-term benefit,” he says.

Mr. Gentile says he was surprised to see the Kaiser report statement that study subjects spent an average of two hours a day hanging out with their parents, 11/2 hours in physical activity, an hour pursuing hobbies and 50 minutes doing homework.

“Those numbers go against many other studies,” he says. He also says those numbers may be indicative that TVs, computers and video games are part of a constant backdrop, meaning they are on or in use while families and friends are spending time together or studying or eating meals.

“As media dominates our lives, you can see it in our living rooms, where we often have a shrine to electronics,” he says. “What has actually shifted is that we may be using [media] together more.”

Mr. Gentile says the long-term health effects of so much media use still must be studied. Though there is an urban myth that television watching contributes to attention deficit disorder, Mr. Gentile says research has shown mixed conclusions.

More worrisome is the link between too much media and obesity and aggressive behavior, Mr. Gentile says.

“The best way to think about this is that media is a risk factor for these things,” he says.

The Kaiser Family Foundation last year reviewed more than 40 studies on the role of television in the increase in obesity among American children. The proportion of overweight children aged 6 to 11 has more than doubled since 1980, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That report’s main findings were that TV was not necessarily displacing physical activity in many cases. However, it also found that the typical child sees about 40,000 television ads a year for everything from McDonald’s Happy Meals to SpongeBob SquarePants cereal to Pokemon Pop-Tarts.

Also troubling Mr. Gentile is media’s effects on children’s creativity. He says his own 7-year-old daughter comes home complaining that friends of hers who watch too much TV “don’t know how to play.”

“It is not that the kids who spend a lot of time with media stop imagining,” he says, “but they stop inventing their own characters and play out what they have seen. I guess my daughter doesn’t want to be Spider-Man. We are constantly feeding the children prepackaged images and stories, and we are taking opportunities to imagine away.”

What to do

It would be easy to say “No TV watching or computers in my house,” Dr. Shifrin says. It also would be difficult for many families to carry out that decree.

“Technology is not a bad thing,” he says. “We’re not going to tell people to go back to the Stone Age.”

Instead, there are steps families can take to gain balance and control of what likely is the many screens in their house — and increasingly, the car.

Most important: no televisions in children’s bedrooms. The Kaiser report found that two-thirds of the respondents had a TV (and often a video-game system and DVD player) in their bedrooms. An earlier Kaiser report showed that nearly 30 percent of children 2 to 6 years old had a TV in their rooms. It also showed that children with TVs in their rooms spent 90 more minutes a day watching it as well as less time reading than children who didn’t.

“I have had 2-year-olds in my office who can’t go to sleep at night without their ‘Shrek’ DVD playing,” Dr. Shifrin says. “It is truly not a good idea for children at that age to have a TV in their room.”

Mr. Gentile agrees and says it is a bad idea at any age.

“The study shows children are already watching three hours of TV a day,” he says. “Tack on another 1 hours if they have a TV in the bedroom. Video game use increases by 200 to 300 percent if they have a system in their bedroom.

“If you have a TV in the bedroom, you are less able to monitor what your children are watching,” Mr. Gentile says. “You are less able to have consistent rule. You are more likely to have bad grades in school. Your risk of obesity goes up.”

Blossom Smith, 8, of Arlington, has a TV in her room. However, her parents regularly unplug it. Blossom’s mother, Rose Smith, says Blossom is allowed to watch TV or play her Game Boy mostly on weekends. She can use the family computer about an hour a day.

“I forget how to plug the TV in,” says Blossom, who likes to check out Cartoonnetwork.com during her limited Internet time.

“Right now the TV is unplugged,” Mrs. Smith says. “The Virginia Standards of Learning tests are coming up, and she needs to focus on school. All this technology is OK, but education matters more.”

Dr. Shifrin says the more parents are involved with children and media, the more control they will have. For instance, Dr. Shifrin is a big fan of TiVo and other digital video recording systems. Families can tape shows and watch them together, fast-forwarding through the commercials. They can pause the program when it comes to a situation that can be a teachable moment on values, ethics or problem-solving, he says.

Sandra Calvert, director of the Children’s Digital Media Center, a research group based at Georgetown University, says quality over quantity should be parents’ mantra when it comes to video games and other media.

“The reality is that kids are growing up in a world different from their parents’ [world],” she says. “Things are changing so quickly. We don’t want to deny the kids their gadgets. Kids should have some access to things that are fun and entertaining.”

Ms. Calvert says parents need to be filters. That means looking at a video game’s content, even sitting down to play it themselves once in a while. Listen to the music, watch the TV shows and make sure children understand why some themes, lyrics and games are inappropriate.

“The most effective way is to be involved, see what they are exposed to and moderate that,” she says.

More info:

Books

• “The Other Parent: The Inside Story of the Media’s Effect on Our Children,” by James P. Steyer, Atria Publishing, 2002. This book examines the role of television, video games and the Internet in American children’s lives and offers alternatives for families seeking to reduce their dependence on media.

• “The Plug-in Drug: Television, Computers and Family Life,” by Marie Winn, Penguin Books, 2002. This reissue of a book first published in the 1970s is updated to include the role of rapidly changing technology. One section focuses on the role of electronics on children’s play, imagination and school achievement and offers suggestions on family life not centered on media.

• “Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds — and What We Can Do About It,” by Jane M. Healy, Simon & Schuster, 1999. This book examines the downside of American children’s computer use at home and at school.

Associations —

• The Kaiser Family Foundation, 2400 Sand Hill Road, Menlo Park, CA 94025. Phone: 650/854-9400. Web site: www.kff.org. This nonprofit foundation focuses on studying health care and public policy. The group has done many studies about children, computers and television, including the recent “Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year-olds.” The full text of that report, as well as others on the role of media and obesity and the effects of media on children age 6 and younger, can be found on the foundation’s Web site.

Online —

• For more information on electronic monitoring devices, visit www.time-scout.com or www.eye-timer.com.

• The National Institute on Media and the Family, a nonprofit organization that provides information about the impact of media, has research and resources on its Web site (www.mediafamily.org).

• TV-Turnoff Network, a nonprofit group that encourages children and adults to watch less TV in favor of a healthier lifestyle, has set April 25 through May 1 as this year’s TV-Turnoff Week. The group’s Web site (www.tvturnoff.org) offers information and alternative activities.

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