TV still dominates, contradicting popular image of proactive youth
Heavy media users especially unhappy
In the Kaiser Foundation’s third survey of media use among 8- to 18-year olds, researchers found a dramatic increase in media use in the 11-14-year old group as opposed to the 8- to 10-year old group. Eleven- to 14-year olds spent almost 9 hours using media. The number of hours for that age group rises 12 hours per day when multitasking hours are counted twice to fully reflect total media exposure. For all 8- to 18-year-olds, the average use, which had been stable in the studies conducted in 1999 and 2004, increased this time over an hour to 7 hours and 38 minutes, about the time adults spend at work.
Texting: 118 per Day
The media tracked by the study include iPod/MP3 players, video game consoles, computers, cell phones, television, radio, and printed materials. (Reading printed materials was the only activity tracked that decreased in the amount of time devoted to it.) The study did not include computer use for school work. Nor did it cover texting and cell phone calls, which for 8- to 18-year-olds averaged one hour and 30 minutes and 33 minutes, respectively. The number of texts sent was surprisingly high: 118 was the average. If you add texting and cell phone calls to other media use, you get an average of 9 hours and 40 minutes per day, significantly more time than students spent in school and on homework.
The So-Called “Fun” Generation
Many books and articles have recently trumpeted the creative, interactive ways that the younger generation interacts with new media, including mashups and YouTube videos. Some writers explain that, after all, something must be “fun” for this generation to have any interest in it. But of course. The impression you get is that youths are constantly and joyfully experimenting with new technologies and reveling in new social connections. But among heavy users, those who use media more than 16 hours per day, 60% report being bored frequently, 32% admit being sad or unhappy often, and 33% report that they get into trouble a lot.
Life as Sound Bites
Those numbers about youths and negative moods directly contradict the popular image of youths as socially active, energized tinkerers. In fact today’s youth, especially those most involved in media use, may simply be seeking to escape their boredom or unhappiness. The compulsiveness of youths who send 118 text messages per day also suggests a chronic underlying loneliness in spite of all the gee-whiz access to information, technology, and friends. Could it be that those mediated, truncated messages and the constant media use just creates a lot of background noise, trivial diversions, and mind-numbing entertainments? Isn’t tweeting, after all, just another example of enforced brevity, the sound bites of our contemporary life? These youths think that they have happy outer lives, proclaiming by large percentages that they have lots of friends, get along with their parents, and are generally happy at school, but when asked about their inner life, the picture becomes considerably darker and more complicated.
TV Still Rules
The other surprising fact in this study is the ongoing popularity of TV in the media use of youths. This too contradicts all those who celebrate the brilliant creative use of new media by youths. Watching TV remains the number one activity for 8- to 18-year-olds—about 4 hours and 30 minutes per day, up an extra 40 minutes from five years ago. The 11- to 14-year old spend 5 hours per day watching TV. One reason for the increase is broader access: Kids can now more easily record shows, view them on demand, and watch TV on their laptops, smartphones, and iPods. There are also more TVs than ever in teenagers’ bedrooms, a situation that naturally increases TV time. In addition 37% report that the family car has either a TV or a DVD player.
A Vicious Cycle?
The Kaiser study notes that there is no clear cause and effect relationship between low levels of personal contentment and heavy media use, although the correlation remained constant when tested for age, gender, race, parent education, and single- vs. two-parent households. The researchers note that the cause/effect could go either way—or both: Children who are bored, unhappy, etc. may seek out more media to escape their angst. On the other hand, heavy use of media, especially television, does itself create boredom and unhappiness. It seems likely that time spent watching TV and boredom, unhappiness, and/or sadness actually form a vicious cycle, reinforcing the very negative moods that youth are trying to escape. It seems to me one of the saddest images of our empty modern life is that of a teenager watching some inane reality show in his room and texting his friends (or tweeting to the world) about the inanity he is watching.
Pear Analytics recently conducted a study of Twitter content and found that 40% of all tweets are “pointless babble”:
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Kaiser Foundation Report
Books about Generation M on Amazon
Digital Natives: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives by John Palfrey and Urs Glasser
Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation Is Changing Your World by Don Tapscott