Teens and the media

Guess how much media the average teenager consumes every day. You might want to sit down for this one. According to a study by The Kaiser Family Foundation, the answer is ten hours and 45 minutes! My first thought is how is this even possible? Excluding time at school and sleeping, teens must spend every moment connected to some form of media. 
The extensive study used surveys and media-use diaries of individuals aged 8 to 18, and it included only recreational use of media; using a computer or reading a book for school assignments, for instance, was not counted. The research was conducted in 1999, 2004, and 2009, and the evidence shows a steady increase of media use over time. The breakdown in hours and minutes is: four hours and 29 minutes watching TV, two hours and 31 minutes listening to music, one hour and 29 minutes on computers, one hour and 13 minutes playing video games, 38 minutes reading print and 25 minutes watching movies. Teens are adept at media-multitasking – watching TV and surfing the internet at the same time – and therefore, are able to consume all of this content in seven hours and 38 minutes per day, slightly more tenable, but still over 53 hours per week.       
There is a lively debate about the merits or problems of media in the lives of young Americans, but I think one overlooked issue is the question of influence. Parents like to think they are the most influential individuals in their children’s life, and if not them, perhaps an inspiring teacher or dynamic priest. What parents fail to realize is that a short dinner conversation, one hour class, or weekly homily is dwarfed by ten hours and 45 minutes of TV shows, music lyrics, and YouTube videos. 
Parents need to acknowledge that their teens are most influenced by people their children have never met in person. Everything from the way they dress to their values are most likely acquired from what is coming off a screen or flowing through their earphones. What are the messages being sent to our children? Like most parents, I am not really sure, but I am fairly confident that they are at odds with Christian ideals.         
The high numbers are driven by young Americans’ nearly constant accessibility to media and little parent oversight. The study reveals that few parents, only 30%, set rules about media use. Many teens also have access to mobile devices that give them immediate access to media. In the last five years, the number of eight- to-18-year-olds who owned cell phones jumped from 39% to 66% and those who owned iPods or mp3 players rose from 18 to 76 percent. Responders also documented that 70 percent have a TV in their room and 50 percent have a videogame system in their room. In short, parents give their children these devices and then walk away, leaving teens to determine appropriate time limits and content. 
In addition to this statistical evidence, I have noticed a shift in children’s behavior. I was always perplexed by the large number of children at our local bus stop and the lack of anyone playing outside or at the playground after school. Now I know why they are not outside. They’re watching TV. I have also observed a change in college-aged students. Not long ago, students would talk to each before class, but now they sit silently in their seats, listening to music or playing with their phones. I have seen similar behavior in adults on the metro, waiting in line, or walking on the street, all connected to media, oblivious to the person next to them.
My sons, three-weeks-old and three-years-old, are too young to fall within the parameters of the study, but my older son has revealed to me how even young children can feel the pressure of media. It is scary how adroitly he can use a tablet, selecting games, playing videos. Perhaps, the closest I have gotten to locking up our only TV was after my son’s third birthday. I assembled his present, a sandbox, for half a day, and then after five minutes of playing, he said: “Can we go inside and watch a TV show.” I feel like I am fighting a losing battle. With the start of school, my children will feel the pressure of keeping up with the latest shows and songs, and I am sure the demands for new devices and more time to use them will only increase. Looking ahead, I can understand many parents’ frustrations and also their disappointments in regards to teens and media use. 
There are some positive elements to media. Watching a good movie is a great release. The internet is a treasure trove of information. Yet, 10:45 of daily media consumption is excessive, unhealthy, and sadly, the new norm. Too many parents have forfeited their role as parents. They let the media entertain, instruct, and distract (effectively, raise) their children. It’s no wonder that it is hard to relate to teenagers and that they appear so different from their parents. Parents need to regain control of their children’s use of media, limit the time, observe the content, and most importantly, replace it with more face to face interactions.    

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.