Healthy Digital Diets Make the Grade

We may think of our kids' online, mobile, and technological activities as their "digital lives," but to them, it's just life -- whether it's at home or at school.
11/19/2012 06:46 pm ET Updated Jan 19, 2013

If I were to count the number of "screens" in my house, it probably would be in the double digits. Considering my wife and I have four kids, including three teenagers, our family is managing more than a handful of smartphones, personal computers, iPads, as well as a couple of TVs. Admittedly, it's a lot of media and technology to balance, but it fits with what we know to be typical in this country today.

Whether we like it or not, our kids now spend far more time with media and technology than they do with their families or in school. The research consistently shows that on average, American children between the ages of 8- and 18 spend more than seven-and-a-half hours a day using media: everything from watching TV to listening to music, playing video games, and using social networking sites. And for a lot of that time, they're juggling more than one medium at once -- sending tweets while watching TV, or listening to music while posting a Facebook update. Since digital media is available around the clock, time spent with it now dwarfs the amount of time spent in school (an average of 6 hours and 42 minutes a day, 180 days a year). Even the youngest schoolchildren -- those in the 5- to 8-year-old range -- spend 168 hours more with media than they do in school yearly.

The fact is that the media environment in which our children are growing up has changed dramatically from the world we grew up in because kids are constantly connected. We may think of our kids' online, mobile, and technological activities as their "digital lives," but to them, it's just life -- whether it's at home or at school.

One of the biggest questions of concern for parents and teachers is what does all this media and technology use mean? How is it affecting the ways in which our kids are growing, interacting, and learning? Since teachers are second only to parents as the adults who spend the most amount of time with kids today, their opinions matter! Teachers' perspectives on whether and how entertainment media use outside the classroom may be affecting their students' performance inside the classroom is valuable. That was the motivation for Common Sense Media's latest research report, Children, Teens, and Entertainment Media: The View From the Classroom. I'm a teacher at a top-flight university, and just like the educators we surveyed, I've been making my own observations about my students' academic performance, and pro-social behaviors over time. And there are some trends beginning to emerge.

While many teachers in the survey credit entertainment media with helping their students hone their abilities to find information quickly, multitask, and collaborate, 71 percent of them believe it has had an impact on their students' attention spans, 59 percent find it has affected kids' ability to communicate face-to-face, and 58 percent see it affecting students' writing skills. In terms of social development, 67 percent of teachers perceive entertainment media to have influenced their students' sexualization, 61 percent see an impact on ideas about relationships between boys and girls, and 60 percent say it has encouraged anti-social behaviors, such as being mean.

Now, these results may send some parents running to cancel their Internet and TV service contracts, and while they're definitely a concern, the solution is not to switch off all media. In fact, these results illuminate two key realities that we at Common Sense Media consistently reinforce to parents. First, kids learn from the media they watch and use, whether it's good or bad. That's why a healthy media diet considers both quantity and quality. As you set time limits, also guide your kids to options that respect their age and intellectual and emotional maturity to ensure it's more of a positive than a negative experience.

And second, parents, the media decisions you make at home matter. In this constantly connected digital world, parents and teachers are important partners actively engaged in raising smart and digitally savvy kids. Consider that when you're involved in your child's at-home media life, you're supporting their in-class progress.

There's no question that in a digital world we are effectively conducting an experiment on our kids in real time. This research is a step in the right direction in understanding how all this technology may be affecting our kids. But as a parent, as a teacher, and as advocate for children in the media landscape, I strongly believe we need more. More quantitative data would allow us to take a longer view and track any significant impact on our kids' physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development over time. Until then, our teachers have given us some insight into what they're noticing in their classrooms with our kids. Let's use this information to consider quality and quantity and, just like we make sure our kids are eating well, let's help them reap the benefits of a healthy daily digital diet.