The Limits of Electronic Media Consumption

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:


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.

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8 Responses to The Limits of Electronic Media Consumption

  1. Anonymous says:

    I am reading the book “Taking Back Childhood” right now and find it really amazing. Our society is headed down the wrong path, in my humble opinion, with too much media (and too much violent media as well…), too much homework, too many structured activities, and not enough play for kids. A couple of weeks ago, we made the decision to cut the cable in our house. We will still have broadcast channels, but it is not much. Our kids are finding TONS of stuff to do in our house and outside. They really do not need media. It is a terrible crutch.

    Thanks for a great post, as always.

  2. sanfelice says:

    Unfortunately, for most of our kids it’s a “do as I say, not as I do” sort of situation, as many of us spend considerable time on the computer reading internet blogs (hello…?). I am taking the approach with a 4.5 and 3 yr old to not allow them access to the computer. They do occasionally talk on speaker phone to their grandparents (to keep the phone away from their heads) but that is the closest they come to electronics at this point. I’m actually nervous that they’ll have more exposure in school to computers than they get at home. I’ll see how long that lasts.

  3. Michael Wood-Lewis says:

    Well Mike… I was gonna write a post about the Kaiser study myself… but I think I’ll just point to yours and use the time saved to read a book with my young kids or go outside with them and work on their snow fort some more. THANKS! -Michael in Vermont

  4. Canuckistani says:

    My son is eleven, and I have been dealing with this for almost a decade (actually, since before he was born …when we announced that my wife was pregnant, more than one member of the “Windows” faction thought that FINALLY I would see the error of my ways and abandon the Macintosh “in the interests of the child,” so that he wouldn’t be disadvantaged educationally and in the job market. Needless to say, this is being typed an a Mac.) We have handled this by not allowing video games of any kind in the house (he does play them at his friend’s houses.) We have a locked timer on the TV (2 hours of unsupervised viewing a day; sometimes he will get more if he watches something with us that we want him to see.) He gets a half hour of computer time a day(a recent development.) He has no cell phone, no Webkins or Club Penguin address, and no facebook page. Until he was five, the only TV he watched was children’s programming on TVO (Ontario’s educational network). No TV is allowed during play dates. And to further his differentiation, he is not allowed toy munitions of any kind (and he is the only 11 year old I know who can define a munition and argue the finer points, such as whether a camo pattern hat would or would not be a munition. Decommissioning Lego Star Wars toys is a continuous negotiation.)
    And man oh man, is this a tough row to hoe.
    He is the only one of his friends with this kind of limitation (three other families we know tried and eventually caved.) He angles for ways to spend more time at other people’s houses. He had a “secret” Webkins account on a friend’s computer. I have the computers in the house password protected. A police officer (!) giving a presentation at his school suggested that the students should have cel phones so that they could report crimes they might witness(We told him to go to the office at school or a pay phone.) He feels that one of his friends is spending less time with him because his friend hangs with people who play HALO a lot. And it is, of course, because his parents are just plain mean and don’t understand.
    So… why do we do this to ourselves?
    Our original reasoning was that we didn’t know what would happen with uncontrolled media use. We did, however, know that it was possible to live WITHOUT media. We also knew that the things that kept us from being imobile in front of the TV as children (having to share one TV between 6 people, no recorded programs, no programs aimed at children during most of the day, pinball cost 10 cents a game, etc.) no longer held. I wasn’t concerned about potential violent content of video games; I was concerned about the easy gratification and continuous stimulation. I have relatives with ADHD, and believed the theory that while TV and video games don’t cause ADHD, they may exacerbate it.
    The upside?
    He is athletic and slim without being skinny. He takes swimming and dance (once a week each), and spent last summer free range, most of it outside.
    He has a wide range of aquaintances and a core of about 5 close friends.
    My son was diagnosed with ADHD combined type last January, when he was ten. We waited that long because he been successful in school (mostly A’s and B’s), has never been a classroom disruption, and only started to have difficulty at the end of Grade 4. Of the 8 students in his class who have ADHD(!), his teacher has said that he is the best behaved.
    This is, of course, anecdotal. My son may have been naturally at the quiet end of the ADHD spectrum (he has combined type). But I am certain that denying him unrestricted electronic media did not make it worse, and probably helped him to function well even before he was diagnosed.
    My reputation is as a whacky left-winger; I find it amusing that my extremely conservative views on media are seen as radical. Child rearing is, at best, an inexact art; at worst, a crazy science experiment gone awry. The unquestioning acceptance of technology is a huge unknown, and yet few sit down and consider what you may lose or gain by it. Ask yourself: do I allow unrestricted media so that my child is quietly occupied and not bothering me? So that he is not outside and at risk of abduction by roving pedophiles?(not a logical or realistic fear, by the way.) So that he does not feel isolated from his peers? So that he will be technologically savvy? As an expression of your social aspirations(ie. “I can afford this technology.”)? Because other parents will see it as a rebuke of their parenting style?(They do, by the way.) Because you can’t take the wining?(It still hasn”t stopped.)
    On the other side we have focus issues (ADHD and otherwise), fitness issues, cost issues, social interaction issues, and the things they don’t do because they’re online.
    I am still at peace with my choice.

  5. Hoppy says:

    Thanks for all the insight…..

  6. Mammajenni says:

    That’s a staggering statistic but I have to say, not entirely surprising given the quantity of opportunities that children are given to plug-in each day. To counteract the social pressures to get online and the easy access to stimulating entertainment available on kids TV networks, and the seductive draw of the hand held game device that can be played everywhere you go, I’ve tried to think less about what I don’t want them to do and more about what I DO want them to do.

    Kids today are lonely. The sad dynamic at work here is that TV networks claim that the show characters are thier friends and that they should “come play” with them every day – watch the between show marketing sometime, it’s creepy! Parents are afraid to turn their children loose outdoors, for fear of abuse or abduction, and indoors, many of us don’t have very large families to play with. I have a 10 year old boy and a 5 year old girl – they play but they each also crave interactions with kids thier own age. When they feel lonely, they turn to “single player” entertainment – TV (5), TV and Video (10). We have limits in place but if I really want them to do something else, I need to help make it happen. I need to invite the family next door over for a fire-pit / marshmallow roast on Friday or to play Wii games together one night, or for a BBQ Potluck Sunday afternoon. That is how we have gotten to know each other and to feel comfortable letting the kids play together outside, sans parents, and to feel confortable allowing them to visit each other’s houses to play in the backyard or to play boardgames in the kitchen.

    I also make sure to stock the garage with gender neutral sports equip. and toys. Nothing fancy – they’ve recently learned to play four square after we brought home 3 big rubber kick-balls. I started them off and after playing a few rounds, excused myself to start dinner and let them go at it. Now they play almost every day.

    I’ve also been striving to make my house welcoming to the kids – let them in. Don’t get me wrong, I kick them out a lot too but indoors, especially in winter, it’s going to be noisy and messy and they might ring the doorbell a lot… it’s the price to pay if they’re to feel welcome in the home. There might be some spills and some extra pick-up time. Invite them to stay for dinner and make some easy hamburgers. There is nothing like having a good conversation with the whole gang around the dinner table.

    So as you can see, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. The times they are a changing and I don’t like the trend toward 8+hour days spent in limited contact with others in a virtual world. Bring back the playborhood.

    Thanks Mike, for giving us a place to think and discuss together.

  7. Andrew_Yee_FB says:

    what about adults? could one argue we spend way too much time on electronics as well? is it hypocritical to not allow our kids to do something that we do too much of ourselves?

  8. Mike Lanza says:

    Andrew – Absolutely, I agree. If parents sit on their duffs and watch TV, they shouldn’t complain about their kids doing the same. I strongly believe that parents should be taking their young kids around their neighborhoods every day rather than watching TV with them. That’s what I do with my boys every day after dinner.