Like many working parents, Beverly Flaxington armed her daughter with a cell phone in fifth grade, when the time came for her to venture out alone. At first, it was a great way to stay in touch.
That was then.
Now 13, Samantha’s grades have slipped drastically and she’s obsessed with texting, Facebook and her laptop. When her texting exceeded 2,000 messages a day, her parents shut off the function from 9:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. on school nights.
Smart phones, MP3 players, laptops and other devices are the air kids breathe — perhaps too deeply, judging from a new study that shows children ages eight to 18 devote an average of seven hours and 38 minutes a day consuming some form of media for fun. That’s an hour and 17 minutes more than they did five years ago, said the study’s sponsor, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. And they’re champion multitaskers, packing content on top of content for an even heavier onslaught.
“This is a game changer,” co-author Donald Roberts said during a panel discussion when the survey of 2,002 young people was released. “We’re really close to kids being online 24/7.”
Kids, the survey showed, now spend more time listening to music, playing games and watching TV on their cell phones than talking on them. Perhaps more surprising: Only about three in 10 said their parents have rules about how much time they can spend watching TV or playing video games.
Not all parents consider all that time spent on technology a bad thing. Craig Kaminer’s 19-year-old and 16-year-old boys have laptops, high-speed Internet connections, Xbox, HDTV, iPhones, video chat, iPods, GPSs, DirecTV with DVR, Kindles and digital cameras. “They’re connected to the Internet, each other and us from the second they wake up until they go to sleep,” says Kaminer, of St. Louis. “In general, they’re very grounded and handle the balance well.”
With so much temptation — Internet-equipped mobile devices, better home connectivity, video gaming online and off, social media and TV-like content on any device — many parents say schoolwork is suffering. The researchers warned that further study is required to link media use with any impact on the health of young people or their grades. But 47 percent of heavy media users among those surveyed said they earn mostly Cs or lower, compared with 23 percent of light users. The study classified heavy users as consuming more than 16 hours a day and light users as less than three hours.
Russell Hyken, M.D., a therapist who specializes in tweens and teens, is seeing a growing number of young patients with obsessive interest in gaming and computers, including a high-school junior who took to urinating in a bottle while playing online and a college kid who shaved his head to save time on hair washing in the shower so he could return to the computer more quickly. Both, he says, were sent to residential treatment programs for those and related problems.
Many parents report less than stellar success with imposing restrictions on mobile devices and computers. Young people are genius in finding ways around them. Hyken says there’s no way around the need for parents to take charge. He suggests setting up a central location far from bedrooms at night to plug in all devices and holding firm on no TV or computer use after certain hours, with absolutely none during meals. Encourage extracurricular activities away from home, where use of mobile devices would be impossible, like sports.