Teen With Laptop and Cell Phone
by Anna Montana Cirell, MSW
In today’s digital age, multiple streams of competing information are exchanged rapidly through communication technology that has become more affordable, accessible, and available than ever before. Recent studies have shown that while the number of hours children are exposed to media (including printed material, television, websites, music) has remained constant at about 7.5 hours a day, the amount of media that many children are consuming has increased to 10.5 hours a day. Through media-multitasking, a significant number of children have increased their absorption of media as they text while surfing the Internet, listen to music while reading, and watch television while doing homework (Roberts, Foehr, & Rideout, 2005). Advances in digital technology tools, which make it easier for young people to consume an ever-increasing amount of media, are strongly affecting children’s healthy development and learning.
Social workers, invested in the healthy socio-emotional wellness of our millennial generation, should attend to the effects of this emerging media trend on the developing child (Rideout, Foehr & Roberts, 2010). Furthermore, social work professionals, trained in a person-in-environment approach, may contribute valuable scholarly insights into the complex, mutually shaping ecological interactions influencing a child’s behaviors, relationships, and social systems (Hutchinson, 2007).
The purpose of this article is severalfold. First, a background introduction will define the scope and implications of children’s media usage and media-multitasking. Second, media usage factors will highlight salient differences across age, race, socio-economic status, and parental media limit-setting. Third, the positive impact of digital literacy on learning and creativity will be discussed in terms of the digital divide. Last, a conclusion will offer ways in which social workers can empower families to use discretion when accepting technology into their homes.
Scope of Media-Multitasking and Healthy Development of Children
Children are spending around 53 hours a week (more than a full-time work week) absorbing media, and the boom in digital technologies has brought sweeping changes in the format and amount of media fighting for the attention of youth. (Roberts, Foehr, & Rideout, 2005). The phenomenon of “media-multitasking” and its inherent mental habits of dividing attention, switching attention, and keeping multiple trains of thought open have significant implications for young people’s ability to attend, to plan, to relate to other people, and to understand the world.
Research on the information processing capabilities of youth has disproved the common myth that the newer generations of “TV babies” have developed an effective survivor-skill strategy for attention-dividing (Bergen, Grimes & Potter, 2005; Pittman, 1990). Multiple studies have found that the brain, regardless of the generation to which it belongs, cannot parallel process multiple streams of information efficiently (Armstrong & Chung, 2000; Bergen, Grimes & Potter, 2005). The brain has the capacity to switch back and forth rapidly between various tasks, but something is always lost in the process (Rideout, Foehr & Roberts, 2010). Empirical findings indicate a disconnect between learning and media multitasking, as heavy media users report the lowest grades (Armstrong & Chung, 2000; Rideout, Foehr, & Roberts, 2010).
Recent studies report negative effects of media consumption on the very young (Christakis et al., 2009). When researchers began to explore the implications of television-as-“electronic babysitter,” they found that infant television exposure correlates highly with delayed language development (Christakis et al., 2009). The American Academy of Pediatrics (2001), cognizant of the critical developmental task of language acquisition, cautions against television or video viewing before the age of two years; they believe that face-to-face interactive play between the parent and infant creates important opportunities for early communication. Furthermore, the audible and visual presence of the television significantly drowns out and, henceforth, reduces both infant and parental vocalizations (Christakis et al., 2009; Christakis & Zimmerman, 2006). These findings may alert parents to the false advertising claim of infant DVDs designed to foster quality parent-child interactions.
Social work advocates can acknowledge that most of children’s media are directed from the business model’s advertisement-driven platform and investigate the Federal Communications Commission’s public policy efforts to regulate the amount of television advertising to children (Calvert & Kotler, 2003; Rideout, Foehr, & Roberts, 2010). Social work policy experts can explore the poor implementation and regulation of the Children’s Television Act of 1990, and weigh the protests from broadcasters and owners of mass media corporations that “decent” educational programs are costly and do not draw in enough viewers to justify the effort to design them (Calvert & Kotler, 2003; Consumer Federation of America, 2000).
Factors Contributing to High Media Consumption
In the average family home, there are three TV sets, three video players, three radios, three personal digital media players (iPod, MP3 player), two video game consoles, and one personal computer. Within this ecology of technology, the average child is spending more time with media than any other activity other than sleeping (Roberts & Foehr, 2008). Yet, not all children media-multitask. Research has shown that certain contextual factors (e.g., bedroom media and lack of parental regulation) and individual factors (e.g., pre-teen age range, minority race, and low socio-economic status) influence the heaviest media usage patterns in children (Rideout, Foehr, & Roberts, 2010; Roberts & Foehr, 2008).
Children consume significantly higher levels of media in homes that indiscriminately embrace technology (Roberts & Foehr, 2008). Parents who allow television sets or personal computers in their children’s bedrooms, or who support their children’s purchase of portable digital media such as handheld video games or cell phones, are more likely to hold positive attitudes toward media. Recent work comparing media exposure times of children and adolescents with and without a television set in their bedroom reveals that easy access substantially increases exposure, even among very young children (Rideout, Foehr, & Roberts, 2010). Furthermore, children raised in families that set rules on media usage view television less.
Changes in children’s available time, driven by school or school-based extracurricular activities, results in different age-related patterns of media consumption (Roberts & Foehr, 2008). Children from two to five years of age absorb just under five hours of media daily, but once they enter preschool or kindergarten, media usage decreases slightly. As children adjust to the demands of school and their bedtime hour is extended, their media exposure climbs until it reaches its peak at around eight hours daily during the “tween” years of 11 to 13. During later adolescence, as middle school segues into the advanced level of high school homework and extracurricular responsibilities, media usage gradually declines to about seven hours daily.
Differences in media usage patterns among race report that Hispanic and African American children are exposed to more media overall (4.5 hours more daily) than White children (Roberts & Foehr, 2008). Moreover, the racial disparity in media use has grown substantially over the past five years: for example, the gap between White and minority youth was just over two hours in 2004, and has grown to more than four hours today. African American and Hispanic children view more hours of screen media (television, movies, and videos) than White children, whereas White children report spending more time with computer media. Screen media consumption has long been explained as resulting from differences in socio-economic status, as children raised in households earning less than $20,000 a year view more television than children in households earning $75,000 or more (Roberts & Foehr, 2008).
The Impact of the Digital Divide on Learning
Despite the high media usage of minority children, digital inequality exists across races. The next generation of digital natives is far from uniformly wired, and this has serious implications for student achievement and learning (Robinson, 2009). Studies that compare the learning experiences of children with high-quality home Internet access to the experiences of children with no or low-quality home access find striking differences across learning attitudes, skills, and habits (Robinson, 2009). Children raised with constrained Internet access spend less time leisurely exploring the Internet and developing sophisticated knowledge acquisition skills. As a result, these learners find information-seeking activities more challenging and suffer more emotional frustration than do more privileged children. Therefore the sweeping belief that all media content is damaging to our children’s development ignores the significant amount of educational digital activities and practices shown to improve scholastic achievement and promote creativity (Schmidt & Vandewater, 2008; Weingerger, 2007).
The Social Worker’s Role in Technology and Learning
In sum, through media-multitasking, children’s media consumption has increased significantly in the past years, and studies indicate that this behavior can affect their learning and development. Research has shown that high media usage correlates with poor grades, and infant media viewing may result in delayed language acquisition. Factors that contribute to high media usage include the pre-teen years, minority and low socio-economic status, a television in the bedroom, and a lack of parental regulation on media viewing. Yet, access to high quality technology may enhance learning and creativity and narrow the student achievement gap.
Social workers working in schools and with families can consider the factors that may contribute to high media use and teach concerned parents how to accept technology into their homes. They can coach parents and families to set limits on infant television viewing and their children’s media usage during homework hours. Last, social workers can embrace a sustainable approach to media literacy and empower both parents and their children to scrutinize both the content of media and the context of its use.
Practicing from an ecological perspective, social workers can acknowledge both the positive and negative impacts of media on youth, and understand that the goal is not to shut children’s eyes to media, but to teach them to fine-tune their vision.
Today’s children will grow up to be tomorrow’s producers of media. The adult’s place should not be to restrict, but to empower children to want better.
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Anna Montana Cirell, MSW, is a doctoral student at Arizona State University studying learning, literacies, and technology, with particular attention paid to sustainable digital initiatives affording all students the technological tools and thinking strategies to act as agents for social change. Previous experiences as an AmeriCorps Teaching Fellow in an under-funded New York City school and as a school social worker in an under-staffed Florida school district inspired her to explore the intersection between learning and technology. She is a graduate of New College of Florida (B.A) and the University of South Florida (MSW).