Study: Kids Fixated With Television, Internet and Texting

Children ages 8 to 18 consume an average of nearly eight hours each day of various forms of media, up from 6 hours in 2005, according to a new study by the Kaiser Family Foundation. In addition to TV consumption, kids are increasingly texting and talking on cell phones. The numbers are especially high within African-American and Latino communities. Host Michel Martin speaks with Vicky Rideout, an author of the study, freelance writer Rosie Molinary and Dannette Tucker, a mother of two and a regular Tell Me More parenting contributor. They discuss why kids are using so many mediums offer tips to parents on how to balance the amount of exposure.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. We visit with a diverse group of parents each week for their common sense and savvy parenting advice.

MARTIN: how much media are young people actually consuming? And how much should they be? And by media, we mean television, of course, and listening to music but also playing video games and text-messaging and messing around on the computer and reading - anybody remember reading?

It probably won't surprise you that young people are consuming a lot of media, but what may be a shock is just how much media they are actually consuming and how much more than even five years ago and how race plays into these patterns.

These are all findings in a new study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which has been studying media use among young people for more than a decade.

To talk more about this, we called Victoria Rideout. She's one of the authors of the study. She's the vice president and director of the Program for the Study of Media and Health at the Kaiser Family Foundation. She's with us from San Francisco.

Also joining me is Rosie Molinary. She's a freelance writer, author, speaker and educator. She's worked extensively on empowering young Latina girls and working with them on issues of self-awareness and body image. She's coming to us from Charlotte, North Carolina.

And here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios is Dani Tucker, a mother of two and a regular on our moms panel. Welcome, ladies. Thank you all for joining us.

VICTORIA RIDEOUT: Thank you, Michel.

ROSIE MOLINARY: Nice to be here.

DANI TUCKER: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Vicki, I'm going to start with you. I want to start with the big picture, as it were, a huge increase in just five years on the average amount of time youth - and by that we mean kids age eight to 18 - spend consuming media. The survey says that up to seven hours and 38 minutes daily - now, that's an average - seven days a week. And that's an increase from six hours and 21 minutes only five years ago. What do you think accounts for that increase?

RIDEOUT: Well, I think the biggest change that we've seen is the increase in mobile media, and so now kids are using their cell phones not just to talk to people but as a way to consume media. They're playing games on it, they're listening to music on it. They're even watching television on it, and there's been just this huge increase in people owning iPods. And so I think kids have just taken to these new mobile media, and they have opened up whole new pockets of time during the day for them to use media, whether they're just, you know, on the bus on the way to school or at the pizza parlor and so on. And I think that's the primary thing that's going on.

MARTIN: You also find in the study that, quote, substantial differences in media consumption emerge between white youth and black or Hispanic youth, with the latter two groups consuming nearly four and a half hours more media daily. Why is that?

RIDEOUT: Well, the frustrating thing about the study is we don't know why. What we do is we document those differences and put it out there. We did control for other factors that we thought maybe could be playing a part in it just to see if there really was this difference by race and ethnicity. So we looked at doing regression analyses where we control for parent education, for single-parent versus two-parent households and that kind of thing. We still did find a significant difference based on race and ethnicity.

There's speculation. People have speculated as to why. Part of the reason may be that there may be fewer opportunities in minority communities for good, safe extracurricular activities, and so it may be that spending time with media in the home is a better way to spend time.

My sense that just leaps off at me from the data is that minority kids just have a tremendous affinity for the mobile media because the big change in the last five years - there's always been a gap between white kids and minority kids, but the gap has grown a lot in the last five years, and the biggest change is in the mobile media. And so I think there's just an enthusiasm for that new media.

MARTIN: Well, the study also finds that black youth spend an average of two hours more per day with TV than white youth do, and I must say I was amazed by this because Dani and I were talking before the program about how when we were growing up, we didn't spend a lot of time with television because there was nothing on it that had anything to do with us, with a few exceptions. So I found this very interesting.

So Dani, tell me how this strikes you. You are a mom of two and one of them is a tween, as it were. She's in the age at which media use really jumps up. First, I want to ask your opinion about this. Do you think that consuming a lot of media is inherently a problem and do you take steps yourself as a parent to limit what your kids are taking in?

TUCKER: Two things: Number one, I think our numbers and Hispanic numbers are higher because most of our kids are in single parent homes and in urban areas. So that TV becomes another babysitter for - especially for single moms who are working double jobs. They're latchkey kids; go school, come home, lock their door, don't move, do your homework, turn the TV on.

So a lot of the mothers don't have the support, they're not comfortable with leaving their kids with anybody or sending their kids to - so TV becomes a safety there. For me and Imani and DeVaughn, whereas they do have a lot of activities, but a lot of times they are at home by themselves. So I do limit what they watch but I don't necessarily always limit how much they watch. As long as the homework is done and their chores is done, okay, sit down and watch TV. A, it keeps you from fighting. B, it keeps you from being outside, and it keeps the peace. So that's what we're looking out especially with single mom.

Another point I wanted to point out to you that our kids can relate to everything. Like you said, you and I couldn't relate to a lot of stuff on TV. But if you look at TV nowadays, through the reality shows and the video shows now, they see a lot more of themselves. It's their culture too, you know?

MARTIN: Rosie what about you? And I'd also like to get your perspective. As an educator, what have you observed about this? Do you have a theory along with Dani's lines about why you think Latina kids are experiencing more media and do you have an opinion about it?

MOLINARY: You know, I agree with Dani. I think that minority children often lack the resources to be involved in other types of activities after school or don't live, necessarily, in neighborhoods where their parents feel confident about them being out by themselves. I think for some young people, accessing media is a way to see what is normal in their culture. And so, I know that when I was growing up as a first generation American in my home, I didn't necessarily know what was normal. When there were pop culture references in school, I didn't necessarily know what they meant. And so, one way to sort of access that information is through media.

And so I wonder if, with Latino children, one of the things that's happening is that media consumption is a gateway to information and experience that they don't necessarily have a gateway to at home, naturally. It then creates I think an interesting dichotomy of the reality of ones life versus the illusion of life that they see on television, and some maybe lamenting for this other life. And one of the things that I see pretty significantly both in research and then in my daily sort of activism, volunteer work, is that the body image and self- awareness and self-image of Latinas to take a beating. And I think that in-taking a whole lot of media that isn't completely relevant to your experience for anyone can have a pretty negative detrimental effect and impact self-esteem in a way that's hard to recoup while watching media.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Vicky Rideout. She's one of the authors of a study from the Kaiser Family Foundation that tracks the use of media in the lives of eight to 18 year olds. She's with us from San Francisco. The study documents a large increase in the amount of media that young people are consuming, even over the last five years, and it also details racial and ethnic differences in the amount of media being consumed by young people.

Also with us, Rosie Molinary; she's a freelance writer, author and educator. She's worked extensively with Latina youths. She's with us from Charlotte. And here in our Washington, D.C. studios is Dani Tucker. She's a mother of two and a regular on our Moms panel.

Vicky?

RIDEOUT: Yeah, we were talking about body image and the impact that media consumption may be having on that. The other relevant factor is the exposure to food advertisement on television. We do know from a fair amount of research that kids who spend more time with media are much more likely to be overweight than other kids, and there is more of a childhood obesity issue in the African-American and Hispanic communities. And our research has shown you see an average of about 20 ads for food on television a day. Most of it is: fast food, sodas, sugared cereals and so on; it's 6 to 7,000 a year. So for the minority kids are going to be seeing quite a bit more than that and I think that could be also an important consequence of this media consumption to keep in mind.

MARTIN: Dani, you wanted to say something.

TUCKER: Yeah. I don't like a lot of those commercials. But A, they do come on, especially in the urban areas - black and Hispanic - because I've not understood yet why those things are affordable for our kids to buy. For my kids to eat healthy, it would break me. To go to Whole Foods and the Kashi snacks, and those types of things, they're more expensive. We're not more likely to buy those things; our kids are not more likely to buy those things. But they are more likely to buy two sodas and two bags of chips on sale - two for five. So, you know, to me the consumer guys - I mean the product guys - they know this. They know that our kids will, you know, more likely to take that $10 and get a whole bunch of snacks because they can, because the affordable snacks are not very affordable. So, think they play on that too.

MARTIN: Vicky, I want to point out something that the study addresses but doesn't answer. It says, the study can not establish whether there is a cause and effect relationship between media use and grades, or between media use and personal contentment. But could you just talk a little bit about - I'm sure that's an issue on a lot of parents' minds. They might think well, I may not like it, but does it really make a difference? Is there any suggestion about a way in which it does - media use does - have any effect on kids' sense of well-being and on their academic performance?

RIDEOUT: Yes, we did find a strong negative relationship between the amount of time that kids spend with media and the type of grades that they report getting. So we classified kids into different categories of heavy, medium and light media users based on the amount of time they spend with media each day. And among the light media users, about a quarter of them say they usually get fair or poor grades - C's or below.

Among the heavy media users, about half of them say they usually get those types of grades. And again, we did control for other factors to see if that is a real relationship there. So, we controlled for single parent versus two parents or parent education and so on and so forth, it still doesn't tell us that it is a causal relationship. And even if it is a causal relationship, it doesn't tell us which direction it runs in. There's probably a bit of both going on there. Kids who may, you know, really not take to school that well may find some solace their entertainment media.

But I think it's an important one to look at. And the other finding from the study that kind of joins with that is, the percent of kids who say they're usually using media while they're doing their homework; it's about a third of kids who say that most of the time that they're doing their homework they're also watching television or listening to music and IMing and so on. And so it's possible those two are going together and that might be something that parents would want to take a look at.

MARTIN: And Dani, do you have rules on that? Can you listen to music in your house or watch TV while homework is being done? How do you work that?

TUCKER: Yeah, they can listen to music. One thing about our kids, they're not used to silence; they're used to noise. I noticed that. My kids, you know, they're used to the radio being on or the TV being on, even though we could probably be doing nine million things but that's the way we are.

MARTIN: Rosie, what about you? As a teacher do you have conversations with parents about this?

MOLINARY: So when I was teaching high school, media wasn't as big an issue. But I remember one day in class, and I'm a pretty energetic, upbeat teacher. But I remember one kid - one day one of my kids said something like this is boring. And I said, you know, ya'll, I'm not Atari. And they said Atar - what? I remember thinking that is the not the gaming system at all in use these days, to show how unhip I am.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MOLINARY: But, it was interesting. We stopped right then and had a conversation about why, because we were doing something that I thought was pretty interesting and pretty different from a typical high school classroom and, but for them they had already grown pretty accustomed to lots of bells and whistles from what was just the first iteration of PlayStation. And so, in fact, I'm having - I now teach in the Women and Gender Studies Department on the university level and I'm having my students in two weeks go on a media-free diet and to for them to look at what its like to be media less for a week and...

MARTIN: Is NPR exempt? Do we get an NPR exemption?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MOLINARY: I'm going to make news in general exempt.

MARTIN: Thank you.

MOLINARY: But I was really interested in what Vicky was saying about consequences and one of them being obesity. But I wonder, too, if teen pregnancy is one of these consequences. A few - I guess about a year ago there was a study out that revealed that girls and boys who became sexually active before the age of 15, spent, one of the common denominators they found was they spent a significant amount of their time watching television. And sort of another piece that goes with this is that the Latina teen pregnancy rate is 53 percent before the age of 20. Fifty-three percent of Latinas get pregnant before the age of 20. And so when I was reading the study that was the thing that really stood out for me.

MARTIN: Vicky, do you know if there's any correlation there in the data that you've seen?

RIDEOUT: Yes. We know that there's sexual content in the media that young people are consuming. We know that it very rarely includes depictions of safer sex or references to protection or consequences of sexual activity. And just over the last few years we have had a series pieces of research come in that have drawn a connection in a longitudinal sort of type of research, so much more robust research that has looked at that kids who spend more time with media and are exposed to more sexual content in media are likelier to initiate sexual activity earlier.

MARTIN: Well Vicky, I'm going to ask you what you'd like parents to draw from the study. But before I do, I'm going to ask each of the other moms on the panel to say having read this; did it change your thinking about your kids with consuming media any different way?

TUCKER: No. I think studies are good. You always want it. I think studies are good, But I think parents have a tendency to use those studies as scapegoats. Be involved in your child's life. You know, you're child is not getting pregnant because she's watching TV. You know, what I mean? If she's getting into sex and things like that, do you know that? Be involved. But I just think we look to the media and we look to different things to say, oh this is why our kids are doing this. No, our kids are doing this because you don't know them. So that's just my personal opinion. I think we really need to get to know our kids, know what's going on in their lives, and talk to them about these things.

MARTIN: Rosie, what about you? As I understand, you're the mom of a toddler, but are very active with youth of all different ages because of your work in the community as well as an educator. Has this study affected your thinking in any way?

MOLINARY: You know, a couple things. One, Dani mentioned your kids are doing those things because you don't know them, and I think the other piece of that is if consuming media becomes their hobby - if that is sort of their vehicle to experience life - then they're also not every really going to get to know themselves. And if they don't know themselves then they are going to be engaged in riskier, less healthy behavior.

And so I think it's made me sensitive to I've noticed the last few times that I've done things with girls that I work with that they have been pretty connected to their cell phones. They didn't have them in the last couple years but now they do. I think they, a lot of them got them over Christmas and so it's made me aware of maybe saying something like, you know, we're going to be media-free when we have these events. You know, we put a lot of effort into planning them for you and you just need to put those away. And it's also made me sensitive as a mom. We're pretty low media at our house with the exception of the news and it's just made me want to sort of continue that effort to get our little guy outside and sort of engage him in the world instead of sort of a celluloid vision.

MARTIN: How about that? Vicky, what about you? Final thought from you?

RIDEOUT: Well yeah. I think one of the things that came out of the study for me is that parents may have more influence over their kids media consumption than they may think they do. And so we put this information out there to help inform parents to make whatever judgments they want to make about their own kids and their own lives. And so if there are parents who feel that maybe their kids are spending too much time with media and they want to curb it, there are some simple steps they can take.

You take the TV and the video game players out of kids bedrooms; that has a real impact, if you don't have the TV on as background, that has a real effect. Those kids spend less time with media. If you do set some guidelines for your kids that really does have an impact and those kids spend a bit less time with media than other kids do.

MARTIN: Vicky Rideout is one of the authors of a study from the Kaiser Family Foundation on media in the lives of 8 to 18 year olds. She's with us from San Francisco. Rosie Molinary is a freelance writer, speaker, author and educator. She joined us from Charlotte. And here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios, Dani Tucker, a mom of two and a regular on our Moms panel.

I thank you all so much for speaking with us.

TUCKER: Thank you, Michel.

MOLINARY: Thank you, Michel.

RIDEOUT: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC )

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