the screens: How to deal with our children's technology
The Buffalo News
June 16, 2008
Anyone who’s ever
spent any time around a kid recognizes it: The
Too-Much-TV Look. Eyes glazed. Mouth slightly ajar.
Expression vacant. Hello? Is anybody home in there?
Used to be, that weird, spaced-out look was all parents
had to worry about when it came to their children’s
media consumption. And the fix was easy: when you saw it
appear, you snapped off the set.
Ah, those were the good old days.
Now, TV’s far from the only screen most kids spend time
in front of each day.
In an ever-expanding digital media universe where 24/7
technology is the name of the game, many kids spend more
time interacting with media – from tiny hand-held
devices to big-screen TVs –than ever before.
It’s a reality parents have to deal with. The question
“We live in a media culture, a media society, and the
sooner we find a median way through that, the better,”
said Dade Hayes, who just wrote a book about his
daughter’s experiences with TV.
At the same time, amid this technology explosion, two
significant changes are taking place in the popular
culture when it comes to which kids are using media –
and how they use it.
First: Babies and toddlers have become the latest boom
industry for media companies, with TV programming, DVDs,
even computer programs now marketed specifically to this
youngest group of watchers, those 2 and under.
Call it the “Baby Einstein” phenomenon – and it’s
Second: Among older children and teens, media has become
an all-hours, multitasking way of life. They’re on the
Internet while watching TV, instant messaging while
listening to music and playing with their iPhones, or
text messaging while they play video games.
“They are always, always connected,” said Mary Jonmaire,
who works with children at the EduKids center in Orchard
Park. “Facebook, iPhones, the Internet – they never
“It’s a whole different world out there.”
The latest research on American children and their media
consumption shows that kids today, no matter what their
ages, are more tuned-in than those in previous
They use media more of the time – and use it in
Some observers say there are good aspects to the trend
–primarily educational and safety ones.
Others, including parents, educators and medical
experts, said they are deeply concerned.
“As a parent, it’s really easy to lose control now
because it’s everywhere,” said Hayes, author of the book
When it comes to TV time alone, kids today watch
basically the same amount as –or even a little less than
– their peers a few years back did.
Fully 81 percent of American kids between 8 and 18 watch
TV in a typical day. On average, they spend just over
three hours watching each day.
“On weeknights, he doesn’t watch too much TV,” said
Cassandra Gilmore- Austin, a working mom from Buffalo
whose son, Tyler, is 9. “But on the weekends he might
watch TV, maybe 5 hours on Friday and Saturday.”
But despite TV time holding steady, in 2005, the Kaiser
Family Foundation found that kids actually spend more
time with “screens” in front of them than ever before.
The screens come in various forms, from computer and
video game and TV displays to movies and videos to
handheld phones with messaging devices.
The main difference, the Kaiser study found, is that
nowadays young people “multitask” with their media
choices, and so are able to “pack increasing amounts of
media content into the same amount of time” each day.
The raw numbers are staggering: Kids between the ages of
8 and 18 spend a total of 44ø hours per week with a
screen in front of them.
That’s the equivalent of a full work week, plus
Nowhere has the creep of “screen time” been seen more
steadily and profoundly than in the very youngest age
Babies and toddlers used to have few options for
on-screen programming. There was “Sesame Street,” but
that was geared more toward the preschool set. Over
time, more programs for children as young as 2 appeared
and became successful –from “Blue’s Clues” to
“Teletubbies” to “Barney” and “Dora the Explorer.”
Now, entire channels on cable TV offer programming
geared to children, even babies.
And “Baby Einstein,” a series of DVDs, CDs and toy items
marketed to parents of babies as young as 3 months old,
has rocketed to international success with its claims to
parents that it can stimulate infants on the path to
Sara Sade, director of the EduKids center in Amherst,
said parents are vulnerable to these messages because
they feel they need to raise their children to be
competitive right from the start.
“They want to make sure their child has the edge –at 3,”
said Sade, who added that TV and DVDs are not part of
the child-care program at EduKids. “It’s become an
increasingly competitive environment for kids, even for
It’s a world away from “Sesame Street,” said Hayes.
“The sheer consumption of media across so many different
platforms is just so vastly different,” the author said.
“We have back-seat TV now – they’re beaming TV for kids
into cars. Kids are watching episodes of TV programs on
Data bears that out. A 2006 Kaiser study found that 83
percent of children under age 6 use screen media every
day, and they watch it for close to 2 hours per day.
Teenagers, meanwhile, are packing more and more screen
time into each day.
Young people between 8 and 18 spend 6ø hours each day
with media, according to a 2005 study by the Kaiser
But, because a good part of that time is spent
“multitasking” with more than one screen at a time, they
are actually packing 8ø hours of media consumption into
that time period, the study revealed.
At the YMCA in Western New York, those who work with
young people said they can clearly see the impact of
nonstop technology consumption on kids.
“Attention span is the No. 1 thing,” said Matt Hilton,
vice president of school-age child care operations for
the YMCA in the Buffalo Niagara region. “We see kids so
focused on the Gameboy, the computer, the TV – they’re
very locked down to a specific thing. Once they’ve found
what their looking for –winning on Gameboy or whatever
it is –they’re constantly looking for the next thing
that will make them satisfied.”
Hilton said that at the Ellicott-Masten YMCA, which he
directs, children in after-school programs are involved
in outdoor play or hands-on activities, as a way of
getting them away from screens in their playtime.
“If they’re outside using their imagination, the
creativity just expands, and the attention level expands
too,” Hilton said. “It’s not just instant
Media and health
When it comes to children and media use, doctors have
left no doubt: It’s not advisable. The American Academy
of Pediatricians recommends that children not watch any
TV or other screened media until they are 2 or older.
Doctors see the overuse of TV and other screened media
as a factor in many of the nation’s pressing health
problems –from rampant obesity to high blood pressure,
from stress to poor physical fitness, from diabetes to
poor self-esteem, from suicide to academic problems.
Some well-publicized studies have linked TV watching in
children to later attention-deficit problems, as well.
“The media cut across virtually every concern
pediatricians and parents have about kids,” said Dr.
Victor Strasburger, a professor of pediatrics at the
University of New Mexico School of Medicine and a member
of the academy’s committee that developed the
recommendation. “Sex, drugs, obesity, eating disorders,
suicide, school performance –the media can play a
significant role in all of that.”
Is the pediatricians’ no-TV-under-2 recommendation being
Not very well. In fact, many parents say they haven’t
heard of it.
Gilmore-Austin, Tyler’s mom, said she’s never talked
with her pediatrician’s office about media. “I never
heard them speak about media use. It was always physical
health only,” she said. “When you think about it, it’s
kind of sad.”
Strasburger puts much of the responsibility on parents.
“Parents are basically clueless,” he said, “when it
comes to estimating the impact of media on their kids.
On the list of 150 things you want to fight with your
kids about, TV is about No. 142.”
The good points
Some argue that TV and other screened media are
beneficial to kids.
Among parents, 66 percent said their child has imitated
a positive behavior off of a TV program, 2006 Kaiser
Gilmore-Austin said her son Tyler imitated TV from an
early age – even though his viewing was limited to
“Barney” and “Teletubbies” – and she quickly learned to
watch with him so that she could control what he saw.
“He would repeat what they say – if they were
performing, he would perform too. He would copy,” she
said. “That’s why it was important for me to watch too.”
Within limits, said Strasburger, there is some
children’s programming that is of high quality.
“Those of us who take potshots at the media often fail
to acknowledge the good points of the media,” he said.
“At the moment, [children’s media] is about 90 percent
negative. But the 10 percent that’s positive is really
Despite her sometimes problematic fixation on the show,
author Hayes said his daughter Margot learned some
valuable lessons from “Dora” – words of Spanish, for
example – that she wouldn’t otherwise have known.
And new TV programs are now teaching kids other
languages, as well, such as Mandarin, he said.
“They couldn’t get enough of it,” Hayes said of his
observations of children enjoying the show.
Making it work
Most people who pay attention to the issue agree: TV and
other screens are a fact of life for today’s kids, and
will continue to be so.
In practical terms, that means parents and families must
make hard choices about how to deal with media –because
media isn’t going away.
One mom, Gilmore-Austin, said she balances her son’s TV
time with other activities.
She likes having Tyler in YMCA programs for after-school
hours because it cuts down on his media time, and
instead gets him up and participating in outdoors and
That and reading have been her two strategies to manage
Tyler’s screen time, she said.
“What I have done with Tyler is, actually letting him
choose a book, and then –if it’s appropriate –I’ll get
it for him and then sit down and read it with him,” she
said. “Kids really just want your attention.”
Hayes, the author, said that families can also make TV
work for them by teaching their children –early on –to
be critical consumers of technology.
“My argument is for media literacy,” he said.
Hayes saw this work in his own family. He said his
daughter grew out of a “Dora” fixation and into a bright
young girl of 4ø who watches TV, within set limits.
Parents will never be able to escape from technology
entirely, Hayes said, so it’s best to try to find a
middle ground that’s realistic and workable for the
“What else is happening in the home?” he asked. “TV
exposure in the absence of any reading is a bad thing.
But if you surround TV [with other activities], it can
still be a good thing.
“At least I think.”
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