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Screen time

By May 5, 2014 No Comments

 I was getting my hair cut recently when I overheard the stylist at the chair next to me trying to make small talk with the four year old boy whose hair she was trying to tame. The boy wasn’t really interested in chatting. The mother asked the stylist whether there was wi-fi in the building, and when the stylist said yes, the mother seemed annoyed. “Well, I wish I’d known that, I would have brought the iPad in. You guys didn’t have wi-fi last time we were here and he was just so confused because he couldn’t watch videos.” 

Kids these days.



Perhaps, like me, you see scenes like this one almost everywhere you go—restaurants, the mall, the grocery store, church—and you can’t quite put words to it but you know something significant is shifting in our culture. And of course it’s not just the kids; adults are glued to screens much of the time now too. I have become more reliant on my iPhone than I’d like to admit, and I catch myself tuning out the potential human interactions happening around me in favor of whatever task, email, search, or story has my attention on that itty-bitty screen.

I am fascinated with the wider questions of how technology is shaping our lives, and shaping us. I’m especially fascinated with the ways that the Digital Age is shaping childhood. I gave a talk about this last month in Vancouver at the “Global Summit on Childhood” where people from many countries and many disciplines came together around various issues impacting children around the globe. 

One of the reasons this topic interests me so much is because we are right in the thick of such massive and rapid change. We don’t have the luxury of hindsight yet in order to know, for instance, what impact digital media has over time on the lives of young children. Our young children are growing up with new technologies, and new technologies are literally growing up with young children. The iPad actually just turned 4 last month—4! It went on sale April 3, 2010. In 2011, 8% of households with kids under 8 had an iPad or similar tablet; in 2013 that number had quadrupled to 40% of households.

April 2013 Atlantic coverGenerations of technological devices are evolving at exponential pace, and human generations relate differently because of it. I’m not just talking about grandparents Skyping with grandchildren; I’m also wondering, what wisdom do adults have to hand down to children and youth when the youth are already enamored with, and savvy at using, technologies that connect them to a world their parents and grandparents may never comprehend?

I truly wonder whether humanity has ever witnessed a period of time in which a toddler will live in a world that is so vastly different from the one her great-grandparents knew. I think this also raises the question of who is capable of or responsible for mediating these changes to childhood. What is the role of parents, educators, society, legislators, and so on, when it comes to navigating this new reality?

 It can’t hurt to start with at least getting familiar with just how much time kids spend with digital media. For instance, a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study determined that the average American child between the ages of 8 and 18 spends 7 hours and 38 minutes using digital media of one sort or another. Every day. And this does not include talking or texting on a cell phone. (They estimated the average 7th-12th grader spends an additional hour and a half a day sending and receiving text messages). But also, with the increasing sophistication of technological devices, and availability of media on multiple platforms, children and teens are multitasking more. If we factor multitasking into the 7 hours and 38 minutes of average media use, the average 8-18 year old actually spends 10 hours and 45 minutes with screen media per day. The study also found that in just five years, from 2005-2010, cell phone ownership among 8-18 year olds rose from 39% to 66%; iPod or MP3 player ownership jumped from 18% to 76% in that same period. Additionally, barely half of 8-18 year olds live in households where there are rules or limits about the amount of time or type of content they can consume on TV, computers, or video games.  

I could go on and on about what all this might mean, but you can imagine for yourself what the implications might be. I’d welcome comments and feedback about where you see these realities impacting your own families, schools, and congregations. Maybe I’ll pick this topic up again next time; in the meantime, here are some further resources worth perusing in addition to the Kaiser study:

Always Connected: The new digital media habits of young children” from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center

Zero to Eight: Children’s Media Use in America 2013” from Common Sense media

McAfee study on how teen online behavior is getting past parents


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