Back in 2004, Kaiser Family Foundation researchers found that children between 8 and 18 consumed electronic media* for pleasure (i.e. outside of school and schoolwork) 6 hours a day, on average.
They thought that children must have reached their limit.
They were wrong, as it turns out.
The 2009 survey found that children spend 7 hours a day consuming electronic media. What’s more, they’re consuming almost 11 hours per day of total electronic media, but since they’re multitasking so often, they cram this into 7 hours of time. The researchers didn’t even include 1-1/2 hours of cell phone talking and texting. So, if we add this on to the 7 hours of electronic media time, kids are consuming electronic media for 8-1/2 hours a day.
This is breathtaking. Think about this. Sleep takes, say, 8 hours. School takes about 7 hours. That’s 15 hours. 15 + 8-1/2 = 23-1/2 hours. So, kids have 30 minutes a day of time when they’re awake, not in school, and not consuming electronic media?This is an average, no less, so some kids must be sleeping less than 8 hours a day or cutting some school to consume electronic media.
So, perhaps kids have finally reached a saturation point with electronic media in terms of the number of hours spent consuming them. The only way to cram more into a day is to multitask even more. Is that where we’re headed?
Meanwhile, those of us parents who grew up with no Internet, no video games, no cell phones, and four boring channels of TV are left to wonder, “How will this electronic media saturation affect our children?”
We are left with a very real possibility that our kids will be more comfortable with mediated, virtual worlds than they are with the real world.
This is where I draw the line. It’s a religious tenet of mine, in a way:
“THE REAL WORLD IS PRIMARY. NO OTHER ALTERNATIVE WORLD IS AS IMPORTANT IN ANY WAY.”
That’s my limit, not total saturation of every hour outside of sleep or school. So, in other words, I define my media limit not in terms of total hours of exposure per day, but in terms of the real world skills my children have.
For instance, being able to hold a 15-minute conversation with another person is far more important for my children than chatting with others online. Building a fort with cardboard boxes is far more valuable than building a “Sim City” in a video game. Playing a baseball game is far more valuable than watching one on TV.
The list could go on for a while. Practically any real, authentic experience – i.e. an experience in our physical world – is better for our children than its virtual substitute.
You might say, “Not my child. She/he isn’t one of those antisocial nerds.” Well, does your child need a DVD or a video game or a computer to be content inside your house if you’re not entertaining him or her? Can she/he find fun outside in your neighborhood or in the woods without the help of an adult?
For many, if not most American parents, the answers to these questions would be “no.”
I want my young children (5-1/2, 2, and 7 months) to have a solid grounding in real world skills like these before they even begin to get immersed in any virtual worlds. For my wife and I, that means zero electronic media for now.
I realize that our “cold turkey” approach is too drastic for most parents of young children, but the cultural pressures to use electric media later in life, i.e. for teens, are inescapable. As Don Tapscott writes in Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World, “digital technology is like air” to teens.
We have a window of opportunity with our young children to ground them in the real world and to help them develop vital real world skills. Once they get immersed in peer culture, our influence wanes considerably.
Reading this, you might guess that I’m a Luddite, an enemy of technology. Actually, I’m a career software and Internet entrepreneur. I actually have a pretty cool mobile game idea I’m working on right now. In addition, I’m a gadget freak. I’m crazy about my Mac Book Air and iPhone, and I use them for many hours each day.
However, I also have long face-to-face conversations every day. I know that, if I were forced to choose between face-to-face conversations and email + texting every day, I’d chose the real world every time.
That’s where I live. It’s my home. I just hope that, once they enter the Facebook years, my children will be able to say the same thing.
* “Electronic media” is defined here as TV, the Internet, cell phones, video games, music and other audio, and movies.