Children today live in bedrooms that are fully equipped media centers, spending hours watching television and listening to music by themselves with little parental supervision and almost no rules, according to a survey of more than 3,000 children ages 2 through 18 released yesterday by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
The study indicates that children on average spend 5 hours 29 minutes every day, seven days a week, with media for recreation. For kids 8 and older, the total is significantly higher, 6 hours 43 minutes a day--the equivalent of an adult work week. Much of that time is spent alone.
Though other surveys have looked at children's TV viewing or music listening, this is the first one since a 1972 U.S. surgeon general's report to assess on a national basis children's use of all media, including television, music, computers and video games as well as reading materials. Ellen Wartella, dean of communications at the University of Texas at Austin and a longtime researcher in this field, called the study "momentous. . . . Media are implicated in the course of childhood as never before."
"Most parents will be dumbfounded by this," said Donald F. Roberts, an author of the study and professor of communications at Stanford University. "Most parents will say, 'Not my child.' And most parents will be wrong."
And in an age when computer use is getting much attention from parents, educators and legislators, television remains the dominant medium for most kids, with music second. Children spend an average of 2 hours 46 minutes watching television each day, with 17 percent of children spending more than five hours in front of the TV.
The survey also documented the tendency for these media to be used in more private places even at the very youngest ages. Fifty-three percent of children, according to the study, have televisions in their bedrooms, including 32 percent of the 2-to-7-year-olds and 65 percent of the 8-to-18-year-olds. Seventy percent of all children have a radio in their bedroom, 64 percent have a tape player, and 16 percent have a computer.
Time spent on the computer lags far behind TV use, with the average for all children at 21 minutes a day outside school, including an average of eight minutes a day on the Internet. But when the study looked at the 42 percent of children who had used a computer the previous day for recreation, the average was 52 minutes, with the heaviest use by "tweens"--8-to 13-year-olds. Roberts says he believes that computer use is on the increase but that the hype about it is just ahead of the curve. The survey was conducted between November 1998 and April 1999.
Even with this intense electronic bombardment, kids still do read for pleasure, the study found, spending an average of 44 minutes a day reading outside of school or homework.
Use of the media "has become an increasingly isolated activity," said Vicky J. Rideout, director of the Kaiser Family Foundation's program on entertainment media and public health. She added that the increasing "privatization" of media and the isolation that goes with it was among the most surprising of the survey results.
The authors of the survey created a "contentedness index" to measure how content children are with their lives. Although they report that there was fairly high "contentedness" across the board, the highest media users score lower on the index. "Indicators of discontent, such as not getting along with parents, unhappiness at school and getting into trouble a lot, are strongly associated with high media use," the authors conclude.
"We've always looked at church, school and home" as the primary influences in raising children, said Texas researcher Wartella. "Now we have to add media to that mix."
The large amount of time being spent with entertainment media coincides with the proliferation of TV shows, magazines, Web sites and other media aimed directly at children. Even the youngest children are "not an audience, they're a market," said Roberts.
Dale Kunkel, a professor of communication at the University of California at Santa Barbara, says the impact of the report is "overwhelming. . . . It's almost a rarity that children are out of touch or independent from media," adding that the vast majority of all electronic media outlets are for-profit, with selling something as the primary goal.
"While one generation of Americans experienced a childhood in which they shared a single black-and-white, three-channel TV with their parents, the next is growing up with a Walkman glued to their ears, 100 channels in the bedroom and a World Wide Web of information at their fingertips," the authors write in the report. "One generation may have flinched at gunshots in a western; the next generation plays video games with violence so vivid it leaves them ducking to avoid being splattered."
About 600 of the children in the survey were given diaries to document their media use. Roberts said those diaries indicate that these kids are excellent at "multitasking." About 16 percent of media use is simultaneous. That would mean, for example, that the TV may be on while the computer is in use, or that a book is being read while a CD is playing.
Music beat out computers as the second most used medium, with time spent listening to it increasing as children got older. "It's their medium," said Roberts. "It addresses issues that adults won't talk about. It takes on taboo topics that adults are uncomfortable about," such as sex and drugs.
The media diaries indicate that 95 percent of the time older children spend watching television is without parents in the room; for children 2 to 7, 81 percent of TV time is spent alone.
Fifty-eight percent of children said that the TV is usually on during meals, 49 percent said there are no household rules about watching TV, and 42 percent said the TV is on in their homes "most of the time."
Jamie Kellner, CEO of the WB network, said the responsibility of television programmers is to "put on the real world and show the consequences, show the options." WB's target audience is 12-to-34-year-olds, and its programming frequently features sexual situations involving teens and young adults. Teens are very sophisticated, he said, and if television doesn't depict the real world, they will simply turn it off.
The survey also found that minority children spend more time with the media each day. African American children spend an average of 3 hours 56 minutes a day watching television, while the average Hispanic child spends 3 hours 13 minutes. The average white child spends 2 hours 22 minutes a day with the TV. The differences among ethnic groups held true at every income level.
Minority children are also more likely to live in a home where the TV is on "most of the time" (56 percent of African American children and 42 percent of Hispanics vs. 39 percent of whites).
Family composition also influences media use, with more time spent by children in one-parent families.
"There are a lot of neighborhoods where you're better off staying in and watching TV than going out on the street," said Roberts. He speculates that access to media is up in part because families upgrade and put the old TV in the child's room, or because "it's a way to stop conflicts between kids and adults."
The survey found that boys were more likely to play video and computer games, and preferred sports and action-adventure subjects, while girls listened to more music each day, watched less TV and were more likely to read teen or entertainment magazines.
"If parents are concerned with the messages being sent, the first step is to know what they are," Roberts said. "If you are watching TV with your child, you can use things you might find objectionable as a basis for conversation, and those things become valuable in the service of parental beliefs."
The survey, titled "Kids & Media @ the New Millennium," was conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation in conjunction with Harris Interactive Inc.
Media in the Bedroom
Percent of children ages 2-18 who have the following media in their bedrooms
Tape Player 64%
CD Player 51%
Video Game Player 33%
Cable or Satellite TV 24%
Internet Access 7%
SOURCE: Kaiser Family Foundation
American children* spend an average of 5 hours and 29 minutes per day using some type of media. Here are some of the ways they spend that time:
Watching TV (in hours and minutes) 2:46
Listening to CDs or tapes :48
Reading or read to :44
Listening to radio :39
Using the Computer for fun :21
Playing video games :20
Using the Internet :08
* Ages 2-18
Sum may not equal total media use time because of simultantious media use.
SOURCE: Kaiser Family Foundation