An ad promoting a trip to Glacier National Park

Five years ago, when researchers determined that youth ages 8-18 were spending an average of six and a half hours per day plugged into some sort of electronic media, they thought the trend had topped out, limited by the number of hours in a day.

They were wrong: a more recent study (as reported by the New York Times) shows that youth now spend an average of seven and a half hours per day using their computers or smart phones, watching television, or listening to music. Since youngsters often do two or three of these simultaneously, they get the equivalent of 11 hours per day of media exposure — and that’s not counting time spent talking or texting on their cell phones.

I believe it. Our 13-year-old doesn’t use his cell phone enough to remember where he last put it down, but he would spend most of his waking minutes on the computer if he could. That’s troublesome to geezers like me, who worry about things like exercise and homework and time with family.

The study suggests, however, that heavy or light media users got about the same amount of exercise. That’s contrary to what you would expect, and at odds with some other studies that suggest a link between obesity and heavy media usage.

While it’s easy to criticize the younger generation’s heavy use of electronic media, I am confident that, had it been available when I was young, I would have done the same thing. There might have been an hour per night of TV programming that interested me: the rest of the time was spent doing chores and homework, spending time with my family, or reading in my room. I confess that I was often happiest with my nose in a book.

If our son is typical, the “lonely guy in a room with his computer” stereotype doesn’t apply. Samuel looks like an air-traffic controller as he sits at his desk wearing a headset, with computer displays on multiple screens. While immersed in the virtual world of Runescape, he’s also chatting loudly on Skype with half a dozen local friends who are playing the same game: they can see each other’s avatars, help each other through the hard parts of various quests, or just laugh when one of the guys lets a balrog get the best of him. Last weekend, he and several of his young online buddies — some of whom he had not previously met in person — got together for a sleepover.

When I was a boy, a six-family party line telephone was our only link with other folks: now distance is little impediment to social interaction. Our children are natives of a different world, and though homework still needs to be done and common sense has to apply, I remind myself not to be overly judgmental.

The story cites a telling comment from Michael Rich, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Boston who directs the Center on Media and Child Health. With media use so pervasive, he said, it’s time to stop arguing over whether it’s good or bad and accept it as part of the younger generation’s environment, where it is “like the air they breathe, the water they drink and the food they eat.”

Today’s youth are swimming in media like dolphins in the sea. We still need to help them guard against predators and keep a close enough eye so they don’t drown, but we can’t really stop them from swimming — and some of us might wish we could swim so well.

Share This