Too much media is the message

Originally published by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, February 4, 2010. Original Link

Blackberries, ipods, texting, high-definition TV, Kindle book readers, and mp3 players. All of these were virtually unheard of just a few short years ago and now they are commonplace. It shows just how quickly technology changes and the extent to which it dominates our lives.

The Kaiser Family Foundation recently released a study entitled Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 10- Year-Olds. In their survey of more than 2000 young people from across the United States, they found that the daily amount of time spent by 8- to 18- year-olds with various forms of media increased by more than 20 percent over the past five years. In fact, young people now spend more time using various forms of media than doing anything else, with the possible exception of sleeping.

Compared to five years ago, the amount of time watching television went up 16 percent, computer use increased by 44 percent, and time spent playing video games went up a whopping 49 percent. Meanwhile, time spent reading any form of print (i.e. books, newspapers, magazines) declined by almost 12 percent.

The study divided young people into three major categories: heavy users, moderate users, and light users. Heavy users were those who consumed more than 16 hours of media content in an average day, moderate users between 3 and 16 hours, while light users consumed fewer than 3 hours of media content.

After controlling for variables such as age, race, and income-level, researchers found that light media users have the highest levels of personal contentment in virtually every category measured while heavy media users consistently had the lowest levels of personal contentment. Heavy media users are most likely to experience boredom, express dissatisfaction with school, indicate unhappiness with life, and get into trouble.

Something that should make all educators take note is the fact that heavy media users were also more than twice as likely to receive poor grades in school as light media users. This provides a solid reason to question the argument that schools need to place a higher emphasis on bringing technology into the classroom.

While it can be argued that schools have a role to play in educating students about the proper use of media, an excessive focus on computer use at the early grade levels hardly seems like the proper way to send this message. Schools should first and foremost focus on providing students with a solid grounding in the academic basics. Only once this is done should computers be introduced into the classroom, and even then in moderation.

A report produced by the Alliance for Childhood entitled Fool’s Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood backs up this recommendation by noting there is no evidence that increased computer usage among younger students has a positive effect on academic achievement. The report also identifies the health hazards associated with sedentary habits and criticizes schools for promoting this lifestyle by over-emphasizing the use of computers in the classroom.

Stanford University education professor Larry Cuban, former president of the American Educational Research Association, had this to say about technology in the classroom. “…there is no clear, commanding body of evidence that students’ sustained use of multimedia machines, the Internet, word processing, spreadsheets, and other popular applications has any impact on academic achievement.”

However, what research does show is that students benefit greatly from face-to-face time with positive adult role models. So instead of plopping a child in front of the television or allowing him to mindlessly surf the internet, parents would be well-advised to carefully guard against excessive use of technology.

Significantly, the Kaiser Family Foundation report found that parents who take measures to restrict the level of media usage of their children had a significant impact on the choices their children made. Proactive steps as simple as turning the television off during dinner, not putting televisions in bedrooms, and placing restrictions on computer access and video game time substantially reduced the amount of media use by their children.

While technology is here to stay, parents and teachers need to do whatever they can to promote a balanced use of technology. It does not make sense to allow young people to spend most of their waking hours engaging in television watching, texting, and internet surfing. Let’s all do our part to send the message that there is more to life than the latest piece of technology.