How Much Media Is Too Much for Young People?

by Gary Gilles

teens texting_390x220The popularity of electronic media among young people is undeniable. And the primary means of staying connected is the mobile phone. Just watch any group of teens and you will see many of them compulsively texting, checking for messages or tapping into the Internet for information.

Always Connected

A recent survey by Pew Research Center found that nearly three-quarters of teens have access to a smartphone and 92% use their smartphone to go online daily. Of those that go online, 24% of teens are online “almost constantly.” What are they doing on their phones? Texting is a major activity. Ninety percent of teens with smartphones exchange texts and send and receive an average of 30 texts per day; some text far more. They are also using their phones to watch videos and movies, listen to music and surf the Internet.

In particular, social media and gaming are two huge attractions for adolescents. Teenage girls are more likely to visit social media sites for sharing, while boys are more likely to play video games. However, gaming is an ever-increasing attraction for both genders. About one-third of the 150 million people in the U.S. who engage in gaming activities are under 18. About half of all adolescents who participate in gaming do so for two or more hours a day.

How Much Media Is Too Much?

One thing is certain: The trend toward obsessive use of electronic media is here to stay. Our lives will continue to be inundated with new, must-have gadgets. While we can’t stop the flow of new technology, we can limit our child’s exposure to these media and the possible consequences. The questions many parents are asking include, how much engagement with these gadgets is too much? And, what are the possible consequences of media overload? Policy experts recommend that use of electronic media of all types be limited to two hours per day. Compare that recommendation with the findings of a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study on the actual media usage by children ages 8 to 18. It found that children these ages devote an average ofseven hours and 38 minutes to using entertainment media across a typical day. That’s more than 53 hours a week! This includes all forms of electronic engagement, such as gaming, television, social media, cell phones, music and movies. The report also found that youth who spend more time with media report lower grades and lower levels of personal contentment. So much for the “educational benefits” and “personal enrichment” all this media consumption is supposed to provide.

The parents I speak with are concerned about this trend on two fronts: The first concern relates to time usage. The hours spent engaging with electronic media are hours that their teen could be doing more productive things, like homework, spending time with family, being active, reading or getting more sleep.

The second concern many parents share is how all of this media activity is negatively affecting their child’s social skills. For example, I was talking with a young person the other day; she was telling me about a problem she was having with one of her friends. After listening to her story I told her it sounded like this could be resolved pretty easily if she just called up her friend and apologized for one particular thing that happened. Her immediate response was, “I’m not going to call her. I might text her. But why would I call her?” I responded by saying that your apology might mean more to her if she heard you say it in your own voice. My young friend’s response: “Nobody calls on the phone anymore. Everything is done by text.”

Interpersonal skills, though, are best developed and refined through lots of face-to-face practice. In these practice sessions we learn to read body language, listen for voice inflection and feel and express empathy and compassion. If we keep working at it, despite our mistakes, we gradually become pretty good at building meaningful relationships. Is it really possible to replicate this rich interactive experience when you replace it with a flurry of one-sentence text messages?

What do you think: Are you concerned about your teen’s obsessive use of electronic media? Do you wonder how it may be affecting their ability to develop the interpersonal skills they will need in order to have meaningful relationships in the future? Please post your comments below.

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