One night after dinner a few weeks ago, the five of us sat in the living room together. My husband was streaming a basketball game through his computer onto the TV. He was also reading on his Nook. Davis was replying to email on her laptop; I was doing online banking with mine. Isa was playing Words with Friends on my phone and Rafael was playing a game on his DS. I looked around and was a bit mortified. Thankfully, those evenings don’t happen every night, or even every week. But it underscored one of the major issues in parenting today: the proliferation of media and technology.
According to a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation Study, Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18- Year Olds, the average American child and adolescent spends more than 7 hours a day consuming media – and if you take into account media multi-tasking (using more than one device at a time), that goes up to 10 hours and 45 minutes! With so many options to choose from: computers, TV, tablets, iTouches, cell phones, Wiis and Xboxes, it’s easy to see how the hours can add up. It reminds me of some advice I’ve heard regarding weight loss: only put a couple of types of food on your plate – the more different types of food in front of you, the more likely you are to overeat. As the variety of media has increased, so too has the amount of time young people spend using it – up more than an hour a day between 2004 and 2009 according to the study.
Of course, what we consider screen time has become harder to pin down. Last week, Davis borrowed her father’s Nook to read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle for her book group. Is that media? How is that different from reading the actual book? I frequently use my computer to stream music while I am cooking or folding laundry – isn’t that about the same as listening to the radio?
In any event, there can be no doubt that we are a plugged-in society. And the American Academy of Pediatrics states that excessive use of media can lead to “attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity. In addition, the Internet and cell phones can provide platforms for illicit and risky behaviors.” They recommend no media for children under age two and only one to two hours a day for older children. Certainly, when my kids use too much media, they seem to be more bored and irritable when they stop. It’s as if they can’t think of anything else to do.
Despite the potential negatives of technology, our kids are living in a digital world and it’s our responsibility as parents to prepare them for this world. My husband, as a mechanical engineer, often spends all of his work day on the computer. This is the norm in many professions, especially in the Seattle area, populated as it is with many high-tech companies. According to the International Society for Technology in Education website, “Digital age skills are vital for preparing students to work, live, and contribute to the social and civic fabric of their communities.” In addition, jobs in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields have grown three times as fast as jobs in non-STEM fields, and are typically higher paying. (For more information, see: U.S. Department of Commerce study on STEM jobs.)
In a statement released earlier this year, the National Association for the Education of Young People and the Fred Rogers Center acknowledge, “When used appropriately, technology and media can enhance children’s cognitive and social abilities.” I certainly have seen my kids practice their math facts a lot more enthusiastically with an online game than a workbook.
Davis uses technology frequently in her education. Her writing skills have improved through the use of a video lecture curriculum. She uses Khan Academy for much of her math. She is a participant in a weekly political discussion group for teens that meet via Skype. She (and my younger daughter, Isa) uses LEGO Mindstorms to program a robot with her FLL team. In addition to all these educational uses, she also uses technology as entertainment: watching the latest episode of Glee and keeping in touch with friends on Facebook.
My younger two spend less time using media, but most of it is for entertainment instead of educational purposes. They enjoy playing online games with friends and watching Scooby Doo cartoons. And I confess, I definitely use technology as a distraction, especially with my youngest. I’ll let Rafael use computer sometimes when I’m working with Davis on her schoolwork, or when one of his sisters is in a class and we’re waiting in the car.
I guess for me it comes down to balance and helping my children have time for all the things they love to do. Many people, myself and my children included, find technology seductive. It’s so easy to get pulled into watching one more YouTube video or playing one more level of Mario Super Brothers on the DS. Before you know it, an hour has passed. We do place limits on screen time and content in our family – more strictly for the younger children than for Davis. However it’s sometimes a struggle to enforce those limits when the kids are nagging me to let them use the computer, or if they are already on the computer, wanting “just a few more minutes.”
I also try to impart my values as well as critical thinking skills to them to help them as they consume media. When Davis is doing online research for a report, I want her to evaluate the source. When Rafael sees a commercial for a toy, I want him to consider if it’s really as good as it looks on TV. In addition, my kids and I talk about cyber predators and cyber bullying.
At the end of the day, technology is a tool and provides endless opportunities for entertainment and learning. It has its place. I just want to make sure there’s a place for all the other things we want to do as well.