Children’s Immersion in Technology is “Shocking”

September 10th, 2012

By Dr. Jim Taylor

parenting_technologyWhat do smoke signals, drums, books, the telegraph, telephone, fax, mobile phones, and the Internet have in common? They have incrementally enabled us to connect with more people and access more information in more rapid, easy, and less costly ways. Each advancement changed our lives in ways manifest and subtle, direct and indirect, predictable and unexpected. This technology may be the most powerful tool in our lives today, with personal, informational, economic, social, cultural, and political impact.

What lies at the heart of this evolution is the way we perceive time, distance, and relationships. Each iteration of this technology has involved a shift in how we experience time and distance, and how each influences us. Time has shrunk (not literally, of course) as communication has become instantaneous. Distance also seems to have grown shorter (again, not literally) as we are able to connect with people in the far corners of the Earth. We are no longer bound by our physical limitations. Our relationships, because of the changes in time and distance, are no longer limited to people in our immediate surroundings. We are able to connect to, interact with, and build relationships with people as many and diverse as there are countries in the world.

These changes in how we look at time, distance, and relationships have produced a fundamental shift in our expectations about these three areas. These expectations, in turn, circle back to alter our relationship with technology. In previous generations before the Internet, mobile phones, text messaging, and Twitter, we simply knew we couldn’t be reached readily by anyone except in person or by landline telephone. The default was disconnectivity, so being disconnected was the norm. Our comfort zone was that of disconnectivity and any ability to connect beyond that was a bonus.

These days, the expectation is that we can be connected in numerous ways with anyone at any time instantaneously. Our default is connectivity, so being connected has become the norm and our comfort zone. Any break from that norm, whether a loss of Internet connection, the absence of a cellular signal, or simply forgetting our mobile phones, takes us out of that comfort zone and can create real feelings of loss and anxiety.

Children and Technology Today

“Shock” is the best word I can think of to describe my reaction when I read the results of the latest Kaiser Foundation survey of technology use by young people ages eight to eighteen. The 2009 study was a follow-up to an identical survey it conducted in 2005. In the previous survey, the researchers found that, on average, young people spent more than five-and-a-half hours a day interacting with technology unrelated to school. At the time, they assumed that given the busy schedules that young people have these days, an increase in their use of technology was impossible. How wrong they were!

The latest survey revealed that in 2009 this same age group spent more than seven-and-a-half hours a day involved with non-school-related technology. That’s an increase of more than one third in just four years! Speaking of shocked, the researchers themselves were astounded at the increase as, between school, homework, extracurricular activities, socializing, eating, sleeping, and family time, there simply didn’t seem to be enough time in a day. When multitasking was included, meaning the time when, for example, young people were watching YouTube videos, listening to music, and text messaging, the total time immersed in technology rose to ten-and-three-quarter hours. That didn’t even include the use of technology for school.

Let’s look at what specific technology consumed so much time: 1) television: 4:29 hours; computer: 2:31 hours; video games: 1:13 hours; reading: :28 hours (reading isn’t dead yet!); and movies: :25 hours. Of the time spent on a computer, social networking comprised 25 percent, playing games accounted for 19 percent, video sites counted for 16 percent, and Instant Messaging 13 percent. I find it surprising that, despite being oh-so 20th century, the “idiot box” is still much beloved and much used by this generation. The survey revealed that 64 percent of families watched TV during meals, it was left on when no one was watching by 45 percent of families, and, remarkably, 71 percent of children had TVs in their bedrooms.

Other research has found that 97 percent of children ages 12 to 17 play video games. Contrary to the perception held by many that video games are a solitary pursuit, almost two-thirds play video games with family and friends, and more than a fourth play with people on the Internet. Here’s a eye-opening statistic: The average young person spends up to 10,000 hours playing video and online games by age 21. That’s about the same amount of time that they devote to their middle and high school years!

The research also reported that almost a quarter of teenagers access social media sites at least 10 times a day, and over 50 percent use social media once a day. Additionally, 75 percent of teens own mobile phones (up from 45 percent in 2004), texting was a dominant form of communication for children and teens with girls, on average, sending 80 text messages a day and boys sending 30 a day. Fifty-nine percent of girls text their friends many times a day “just to say hello.” One girl sent more than 2,000 messages in one day. Additionally, 83 percent take photos and 64 percent share them with their friends using social media. Finally, 50% of the teenagers with driver’s licenses indicated that they sent and read text messages while they were driving.

The impact of technology on studying and grades was significant. Thirty-one percent of children said they multitasked while doing their homework most of the time and another quarter indicated they did 25 percent of the time. This despite a growing body of evidence that multitasking interferes with learning. Additionally, sixty-six percent of light users reported good grades and only 23% indicated fair or poor grades. With moderate use, the percentage with good grades stayed about the same (65 percent), but there was a substantial increase in the percentage of students with fair or poor grades (31 percent). The effect of heavy use of technology was even more pronounced, with only 51 percent of heavy users reporting good grades and 47 percent indicating fair or poor grades.

How much has technology taken over the lives of children and their parents’ priorities today? A study by AVG, the Internet security company, found that young children are more likely to master tech skills than life skills. For example, while 58 percent of two to five year olds can play a computer game, only 43 percent can ride a bike. Of children in that age group, 10 percent can use a smartphone application, while only nine percent can tie their shoes. Here’s a scary statistic: more young children can open a web browser than swim.

This post is excerpted from Dr. Jim Taylor’s new parenting book, Raising Generation Tech: Preparing Your Children for a Media-fueled World.

(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

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