Opinion: Carolina Journal Opinions

Media: The Other Parent

RALEIGH — Increasingly sophisticated technologies and rapidly evolving media platforms have fueled an epic surge in children’s media use. So influential is media in kids’ lives, the resource group Common Sense Media has dubbed it “the other parent.”

Shocking as this sounds, new data on the recreational habits of tweens and adolescents reveal it’s on the mark. Parents and educators must thus face the daunting task of helping kids navigate a media-saturated culture in a way that promotes healthy development and school success.

Cutting back on media time would be a great place to start. According to a recently released Kaiser Family Foundation study, “Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds” — assessing 2,000 students from public, private, and parochial schools — kids spend on average more than 7½ hours a day (53 hours a week) on recreational media with devices such as cell phones, MP3 players, computers, and television.

Children’s daily media use has increased by an hour and 17 minutes over the past five years; researchers attribute this uptick to expanding mobile technologies. Now, according to Kaiser’s Vicky Rideout, “there is nothing that occupies more of young people’s time than media. Not school. Not church. Not family.”

What does this mean for parents? The purchasers of children’s media devices, parents are also the gatekeepers of media usage. Surprisingly, most parents don’t regulate media time: according to Kaiser’s study, only one-third of students had any parental restrictions on TV, video game, or computer time.

There are compelling reasons to reconsider. Parental rules drove down daily use by about three hours, Kaiser’s study found. Moreover, light media users (consuming less than three hours daily) were likelier to say they were happy at school. Heavy users (tethered to media for 16-plus hours daily) were likelier to say they got into trouble frequently, and were often bored, sad, or unhappy.

Kids’ consumption of recreational media is related to school success as well. Heavy media users were more than twice as likely as light users to say they earned “fair” or “poor” grades — Cs or below. In fact, almost half of students at the high end of media use said they did not perform well in school. But 66 percent of light users said they got good grades.

Mobile technologies aren’t just transforming kids’ leisure time; they’re also affecting school culture. While technology in general has advanced and enriched classroom learning, students’ mobile devices have not.

Cell phones among students are now ubiquitous — Kaiser reports 85 percent of 15- to 18-year-olds own them — meaning administrators must make decisions about how to regulate them.

Most high schools prohibit cell phone use. Kids are using them anyway. According to a 2009 Common Sense Media poll, teens with cell phones send an average of 440 text messages per week, 110 of them while in class.

A sizeable minority — 35 percent — say they have used phones to cheat. Some text test answers to friends, while others access answers online. Such behaviors have schools scrambling for solutions: a recent MSNBC.com article reports that officials in one Alabama county are confiscating offenders’ phones for 30 days and scanning them for cheating and other infractions.

Used properly, technology and media have tremendous value and utility — for education, enjoyment, and connection. Mobile technologies have irrevocably altered and animated the panorama of children’s media options. But even in a culture awash with digital advances, children can’t find their own way. They need firm, enforceable rules and guardrails from parents and educators — now, more than ever.

Kristen Blair is a North Carolina Education Alliance Fellow.