Perhaps most curious of all the results of the recently released Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) study "Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds" are the headlines it has generated.
"Researchers shocked at kids' online time," says one. "U.S. kids using media almost 8 hours a day," another screams. "New media use by children up by hours per week," another story warns.
Essentially, the news coverage since last week's unveiling of the updated research on children, teens and the media has focused on the sheer quantity of media consumed by America's youths, and this is newsworthy, to be sure.
The very idea that children and teens are physically able to absorb more than 53 hours per week of media content — or seven hours and 38 minutes per day — astonished even the researchers, who had thought the previous average of six hours and 21 minutes per day calculated in 2004 represented the maximum amount of time that could be spent.
Even more mind-boggling, thanks to multitasking (using more than one kind of media at a time) children and teens "actually manage to pack a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes … worth of media content into those 7½ hours," the KFF study says. A note to the already astonished: The study didn't include the time youngsters spend texting via cell phones. Add another 1½ hours per day.
As the mother of four, I wonder if the folks who are surprised by this research have children. It strikes me that only the childless would be shocked by the results. The rest of us spend much of our time saying things like, "Turn off the computer and go to bed."
Those who wonder how it's possible that a child can rack up more time using electronic media than most people spend earning a living are perhaps unaware that nearly 70 percent of American children have television sets in their bedrooms. As well, most youngsters personally own computers, gaming systems and, increasingly, mobile devices that provide full access to the Internet. Most important, for most children, there are no rules about when and how they may use their electronics.
According to the study, "Only about three in ten young people say they have rules about how much time they can spend watching TV (28%) or playing video games (30%), and 36% say the same about using the computer. But when parents do set limits, children spend less time with media: those with any media rules consume nearly 3 hours less media per day (2:52) than those with no rules."
(Rule No. 1: No TV in the bedroom. Duh.)
It's challenging not only to monitor the amount of time youngsters spend using media, but how they use it as well. According to OnlineFamily.Norton, a monitoring system offered by the Internet security company Symantec, 2009's top five online search terms for children and teens were YouTube, Google, Facebook, "sex" and "porn."
Clearly, some of those seven hours using media are unsupervised.
Common sense ought to tell us that there will be cultural repercussions for allowing our children to develop what can only be described as a media obsession.
For example, the KFF study reveals that roughly 75 percent of seventh- to 12th-graders have a profile on a social networking site. Meanwhile, Junior Achievement's seventh annual teen ethics survey found that those social networking sites have become so central to teens' lifestyles that more than half (58 percent) "[w]ould consider their ability to access them during working hours when weighing a job offer from a potential employer."
Um, kids … Google "time theft" and see what you get.
It's time for us to get over our shock that what is happening right before our eyes is, in fact, happening right before our eyes. Parents (read: we) must teach Generation M to incorporate media into a balanced, healthy, whole life.
As it is, 53 hours a week is just too much.
• Visit Marybeth Hicks at www.marybethhicks.com.