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Youth Culture Window

Media Consumption: Part IV
The Lure of Glowing Screens

Kids & Parents Have Different Take on Tech
An article from David R. Smith at

NOTE: This is the final article in a 4-part series based on the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Generation M2:Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year-Olds. The first article is an overview of the report. The second article talks about how much “entertainment media” kids consume each day through music. The third article focuses on print media consumption, and this final article turns our attention to the undisputed heavyweight: the screen.

Today’s generation has a new pied piper: the screen. Whether it’s a Hi Def, 60” behemoth hanging on the wall, or a 3” screen on a cell phone that fits in a pocket, kids are entranced by the glow from the tech in their lives.

But what kids can’t take their eyes off of…parents seem to hardly notice.

The Dominance of the Screen
In our series of articles based on Kaiser Family Foundation’s Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year Olds, we’ve given a (staggering) overview of kids’ media consumption. We’ve also talked about how much “entertainment media” kids consume each day through music, and how much they take in through print media, as well.

But in our final article, it’s time to turn our attention to the undisputed heavyweight: the screen.

For many hours each day, kids between the ages of 8 and 18 are entranced by the LCD screens attached to video games, computers, movie theaters, televisions, and cell phones. (In fact, knowing how crucial screens are to most kids, Samsung has been hard a work creating a virtually indestructible screen that will fit kids’ lives even better.)

Sure, those screens are very different in size and location, but the content they deliver to kids will ensure that kids keep their noses glued to them. In fact, photographer Evan Baden noticed such a deep dependence on screens by kids that he put together a telling portfolio aptly entitled, The Illuminati.

The evolution of the screen over the past century has been fantastically chronicled in this video. The gist is that entertainment was once confined to the Silver Screen, but now, all things entertainment are available on a screen that fits in a pocket or purse.

As we discuss the individual screens that have captured a generation, note two things. First, see how dependent upon the various screens most kids are, and how long they look at them each and every day. But second, notice how passé many parents seem to be in regards to the screens in their kids’ lives.

If there’s a sacred cow of media, it’s “television content.” Kids watch 4 hours and 29 minutes of television programming each and every day, which is an increase of 40 minutes per day over the last 5 years! But don’t think kids are glued to their couches for this amount of time. Nope, they can now watch television programming online, on their cell phones, on handheld video game systems, and even mp3 players.

Television has gone mobile.

But don’t be too quick to discount ye ol classic television set, either. Part of the reason kids are watching more television these days is also due to the fact that 71% of them have a TV in their bedroom (and 49% of them have cable or satellite access there, too). KFF’s study clearly showed that kids who have TVs in their bedrooms watched an hour more of programming each day than kids who did not have a TV in their rooms.

The effects of extended TV watching are well-documented: it plays a role in kids starting sex earlier. In fact, multiple studies have observed this disturbing trend.

But, according to KFF’s report, less than half of kids’ parents (46%) have rules about what sort of television content they can watch. And a mere 28% of kids’ parents have rules about how much time can be spent watching TV.

So it looks like one of the most influential screens in kids’ lives is largely unmonitored by parents.

Another big player in the screen world is, of course, computers. From desktops, to laptops, to netbooks, and soon, the fervently anticipated iPads, computer screens demand 1 hour and 29 minutes of kids’ attention each day. The three most popular computer-based activities include visiting social networking sites, playing computer games (like the wildly popular Farmville on Facebook), and watching online videos on sites like YouTube.

Computers give kids access to the world through a connection to the Internet…and a third of all kids are accessing that world from the comfort of their bedrooms. Yep, 36% of kids have a computer in their bedroom, and 33% of them have Internet access to boot, according to KFF.

Allowing computers in bedrooms is definitely something parents should be leery of; in earlier articles, we’ve already pointed out that some studies have found “parents are clueless” about what their kids are actually doing online.

The content available to kids online is constantly growing and changing. Unfortunately, many of those changes are not good.

For instance, one of the biggest buzzes in youth culture this past week has been the explosion in popularity of a website called ChatRoulette. This is a site that allows users to employ their computer-mounted webcam to chat with any other person using the site at the same time. If you don’t like who you’re looking at, you just hit “next,” and in true roulette fashion, another site user is randomly assigned to your computer screen.

During the writing of this article, I visited the site for about 7 minutes to see what the buzz was all about. In that time, I clicked through mainly guys – no surprise there – about 60 in total, 4 of whom were openly masturbating. In the same 7 minutes, I only saw 2 women…but one of them was doing a topless strip tease.

Are you still sure you want a computer in your child’s bedroom?

Cell Phones
This screen may be the most important one because of the access it grants…and its portability. Not only can it connect kids to the rest of the world via text messaging, web browsing, and online social networks, but it also conveniently – and privately – slips into a purse or a pocket.

According to KFF, 66% of all 8-18 year olds own a cell phone, and spend over 2 hours each day using them (talking for 33 minutes and texting for 1 hour and 35 minutes). Kids spend an additional 49 minutes each day viewing television content, listening to music, and/or playing games on their cell phones.

That’s almost 3 hours a day spent looking at a cell phone screen!

Many of today’s cell phones are miniature computers, and the increased popularity – and sale – of “smartphones” to teenagers will likely mean that kids’ attraction to cell phone screens will remain strong.

Very few students report much parental oversight when it comes to cell phones, in spite of the many reasons for parents to be heavily involved in what happens on the tiny screens. Only 27% of the kids report that they have rules about the amount of time they can spend talking on the phone and even less, 14%, say they have rules about the number of texts they are allowed to send.

We’ve talked before about how some teens are using these mobile devices in dangerous ways. There have been plenty of headlines about sexting, and others have warned that cell phones will be the number one provider of Internet pornography by 2011.

These alone are reason enough for parents and youth workers to be aware of what their kids are viewing on these miniature screens.

Video Games
The time spent playing video games has increased dramatically since KFF’s last report in 2005. On average, kids spend 1 hour and 13 minutes playing video games each and every day. Part of the increase is due to the incredible graphics engines now powering the games. Part of it is due to the fact that game designers have finally fused two of kids’ favorite media, video games and music, yielding culture-changing games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero. But the biggest reason for the increase in video games played may have to do with how and where they’re played.

Just over half (51%) of all video games are now played on handheld devices such as cell phones or handheld players, like a Nintendo DS. Again, portability has ensured that kids can play video games on the go, and don’t have to be “plugged in” somewhere.

But don’t assume that kids have abandoned the old fashioned gaming console either. The Pew Research Center’s study on gaming consoles found that 80% of kids own a gaming console; KFF discovered that 50% of all kids have a gaming console in their bedroom.

Given the number of video game consoles that are in homes, and the number of gaming systems that are in bedrooms – and hopefully, by now, the WHOLE POINT of this article – you might guess that not a lot of parental rules accompany video game play. Only 30% of kids say their parents have rules about how much time they can spend playing video games. And only 30% of kids say their parents have rules about which video games they can play.

Given some of the deplorable video games out there for sale, parents should definitely take a second look at this screen.

Screen Time vs. Face Time
The leading influence on kids’ lives has been debated for quite a while; some think it’s media, while others believe it’s parents. In fact, the answer is “it depends.”

In households where parents monitor media and make sure to spend quality time with their kids on a daily basis, “parents” are the leading influence on kids’ lives. But in homes where parents delegate quality time with their kids to screens, “media” gladly steps into the void and becomes a surrogate parent.

But there’s hope. Kids will respond and react to the influence offered by parents. For instance, KFF discovered that when parents did set limits on screen time, children spent less time with media…far less time, in fact. Kids in homes with any media rules consumed almost 3 hours (2:52) less media each day than kids in homes with no rules. That’s huge!

So parents please don’t throw in the towel. You can make a difference…a big difference!

Just make sure that you have uninterrupted time with your kids each day. And by uninterrupted, I mean, make sure there aren’t any screens turned on or headphones plugged in. Just you and them. Even if you take advantage of just a fraction of those 3 hours you’ll find by putting some rules in place, you’ll notice an incredible difference in your child.

Given the media that is mass marketed to our children, we simply cannot be oblivious any longer. We must know what those screens are pumping into our kids’ minds and hearts. And when we disapprove of the content – and from time to time we will – we simply need to unplug it.

David R. Smith David R. Smith is a 15-year youth ministry veteran who helps youth workers and parents through his writing, training, and speaking. David specializes in sharing the gospel, and equipping others do the same. He co-authored his first book this year, Ministry By Teenagers. David provides free resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.

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