The average American kid spends more time each day marinating in multiple media than he does in school, according to an alarming new study by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
The heavy use of media by kids in this country is a significant public health issue, and people in the media business ought to worry about this. First, because it is the ethical and decent thing to do. Second, because almost everyone has kids, hopes to have kids or has a niece or nephew she loves.
In a comprehensive national study
, the Kaiser Foundation found that the average youth between the age of 8 and 18 spends eight hours and 33 minutes per day, every day, exposed to media, including television, radio, computers, games, portable music players, etc. More than a quarter of that time is spent multi-tasking; that is, chatting on IM while listening to music or watching TV while reading a textbook.
As illustrated below, TV sucks up the most amount of time, averaging a bit more than three hours a day. Print brings up the rear at a meager 43 minutes a day. The only good news in the study is that over-all media time has stayed the same since a similar study was conducted in 1999.
Although the Kaiser Foundation did an excellent job of documenting media use, it left out another significant electronic distraction for kids: the mobile phone. Fully 44% of youths between the ages of 10 an 18 have cellphones, according to a new study
from NOP World, a market research company. Cellphone adoption among adolescents has been torrid, rising to 40% of kids aged 12-14 from only 13% in 2002.
So, it is entirely possible that a kid will be talking on her cellphone, chatting on IM and "watching" TV all at the same time. And, oh yeah, doing homework, too.
What kids definitely are not
doing when they are gorging on media is exercising.
The rate of obesity in children 6-11 has tripled
in the last three decades, according to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. "More than a quarter of children aged 6-11 are obese," reports
the University of Michigan Health System. "Among kids aged 12-17, 25% of girls and 18% of boys are obese."
Type 2 (adult onset) diabetes, which is highly correlated with adolescent obesity, grew tenfold
in between 1990 and 2000, reports the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Diabetes is the seventh-leading cause of death in the United States.
Obesity in children can lead to poor self-esteem, depression, skeletal problems, liver disease, early puberty and such potential adult health problems as high blood pressure and heart disease, according to the University of Michigan.
Heavy TV use contributes to obesity not only because it is a decidedly sedentary activity, but because commercials sell the worst possible food for children. "Commercials almost never give information about the foods children should eat to keep healthy," says
the AAP. Instead, kids are fed a steady diet of ads for foods featuring dangerous quantities of salt, sugar and carbohydrates.
Pediatricians recommend an outright ban on TV for children under the age of two. "Too much television can negatively affect early brain development," says the AAP. "Until more research is done about the effects of TV on very young children, the AAP does not recommend television for children age two or younger. For older children, the Academy recommends no more than one to two hours per day of educational, nonviolent programs."
Some commentators believe there's no such things as "good" TV for kids. Joseph Chilton Pearce, a specialist in childhood development, says
research shows that the radiant light of TV or computer monitor tends to cause a youngster's brain to effectively "close down," producing a hypnotic-like state. To counter this phenomenon and keep young viewers engaged, says Pearce, progammers introduce "startle effects" that trigger "the brain into thinking there might be an emergency."
Although the higher brain, or "neocortex," knows the images aren't real, the lower or "reptilian" brain reacts as though the emergency were authentic, triggering the production of cortisol, a potent hormone that prepares the body for fight or flight. When the the video "threat" passes, another hormone is released to relax the body once again.
"The trouble with current-day children's television programming is that there's never any letdown, and the brain of the average American child, who has watched 5,000 to 6,000 hours by the age of five of six, is suffering a great deal of confusion," says Pearce. "The massive over-stimulus from TV is causing the brain to maladapt in ways previously thought impossible. It is literally breaking down on all levels off neural development."
The risks to children who overdose on media go beyond the immediate threat to their physical health. It takes a toll on their emotional and -- yes, I am going to use the "M" word here -- moral development.
Television programs and movies not only push murder, mayhem, sex, drugs, alcohol and tobacco use, but they are pushing the limits farther all the time. So do certain video games and such music genres as rock and hip-hop. Think about this staggering statistic from the AAP:
If your child watches three to four hours of noneducational TV per day, he will have seen about 8,000 murders on TV by the time he finishes grade school... Even if the "good guys" use violence, children may learn that it is OK to use force to handle aggression and settle disagreements.
When it comes to violence and gore, video games take a back seat to no one.
An 18-year-old kid is on trial for killing three Alabama policemen he shot in a real-life enactment
of a scene from the popular Grand Theft Auto III game. "Life is a video game," the young man said as he was booked two years ago. "You've got to die sometime."
The families of the murdered officers are seeking an aggregate $600 million in damages from Take-Two Interactive, the publisher of the game; Sony, the manufacturer of the PlayStation2; Wal-Mart, which sold the box, and GameStop, which sold the games.
I hope they win. Maybe that's the kind of thing we need to stop the media's madness.