Throughout history, various types of revolutions have defined the formation and growth of generations upon generations. Today’s society has instant, world-wide access through a variety of media advances that are easily accessible and generally affordable. Cellular telephones, video games, televisions, computers, and personal handheld electronic devices have transformed the way our world communicates. It is safe to say, our youth today are riding the wave of a global technology revolution.
Simply defined, a revolution is a fundamental change in power or organizational structures that takes place in a relatively short period of time; the results of which include major changes in culture, economy, and socio-political institutions. Although the telephone took 20 years to reach 50 million users, the Web took only four years, iPods three and MySpace two, while YouTube hit 50 million users in one year! How can this be? The iGeneration (those born after 1990) is driving these trends. Individuals in this group watch more than 100 YouTube videos a month, download applications, MySpace and Facebook (now verbs), and text the night away. They don't see technology as a tool. For them, it is just a way of life. Leading to the question: How does this affect the youth of today?
Where the Focus Is
As anyone who knows a teen or a tween can attest, various media are among the most powerful forces in young people’s lives. According to a 10-year KAISER FAMILY FOUNDATION study, eight- to eighteen-year-olds spend more time with media than in any other activity besides sleeping—an average of more than 7½ hours a day (more than 53 hours a week). Because they spend so much of that time “media multitasking” (using more than one medium at a time), they actually manage to pack a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes worth of media content into those 7½ hours. Older teens and Net Generationers spend more than 20 hours per day using all types of media, including cell phones. This is accomplished not by not sleeping but with considerable multitasking, which peaks at seven simultaneous activities for older teens.
Television shows, video games, music, and the websites they visit are an enormous part of young people’s lives, offering a constant stream of messages about families, peers, relationships, sex, violence, food, values, and an abundance of other topics. A recent report in the Journal of the American Medical Association found there is a greater chance for obesity, smoking, violence, and eating disorders in today’s youth that can be directly traced to their media consumption. Understanding the role of media in young people’s lives is essential for those concerned with promoting their healthy development including parents, physicians, policymakers, and educators. Once we understand the scope of this revolution, we can begin to guide young people in exerting and maintaining control over technology, instead of vice versa.
Talking versus Texting
For starters, taking a firm hold on readily available mobile devices, the Net Generation (1980-89) and the iGeneration (“i” representing media such as iPods and the Wii, but also reflecting the “individualized” nature of the media) have turned the concept of communication inside out. It is now all about texting, IMing, Facebooking, Skypeing, FaceTime video chatting—pretty much anything but sharing the same space and talking in person.
Surely you don’t have to look far to know that texting is the method of first choice for communicating among youth. Ironically, what would once be considered the easiest and most available form of keeping in close touch has now become a device predominantly used for “chatting” without actually speaking. Cell phone ownership is nearly everywhere among teens and young adults, and much of the growth in teen cell phone ownership has been driven by adoption among the youngest teens. Three-quarters (75%) of teens and 93% of adults ages 18-29 now have a cell phone. In the past five years, cell phone ownership has become mainstream among even the youngest teens; fully 58% of 12-year olds now own a cell phone, up from just 18% in 2004.
According to Nielsen Mobile, in the first quarter of 2009, the average U.S. teen made and received an average of 191 phone calls and sent and received 2,899 text messages per month. By the third quarter, the number of texts had jumped to a whopping 3,146 messages per month, which equals more than 10 texts per every waking non-school hour. Preteens sent and received 1,146 texts per month. With numbers this astronomical, it’s easy to see how practices such as sexting—and yes, harassment—have become more prevalent among students; creating dangers they don’t yet have the maturity to grasp.
World Wide Web
The past several years have seen an explosion in teenagers’ use of the Internet. Fully 93% of teens ages 12-17 go online, and 73% of American teens now use social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter. Youth who spend more time with media report lower grades and lower levels of personal contentment. Nearly half (47%) of all heavy media users (those who consume more than 16 hours of media content per day) say they usually get fair or poor grades (mostly C’s or lower), compared to 23% of light media users (those who consume less than three hours of media per day). Heavy media users are also more likely to say they get into trouble frequently, are sad or unhappy (e.g. Facebook depression), and are often bored. Despite these cautionary statistics, teen usage is not likely to diminish.
In response to teens’ growing online presence, a digital media culture has emerged that entertains, informs, and connects them to one another. Optimally, this “virtual mall” can be a place where teens go to socialize with friends, listen to music, do their homework, window shop, and follow the latest trends. Unfortunately, a great number of individuals—both young and not-so-young—use their digital presence to create a fantasy world where their words and actions hide behind anonymity, participating in a crude culture where they intentionally inflict harm without concern for potential outcomes. Instances of various forms of harassment and cyber-bullying have steadily increased, with news accounts more and more frequently reporting tragedies such as suicide resulting from this callous, irresponsible behavior.
The scientific and public health communities overwhelmingly conclude that unmonitored online activity and viewing violence through media pose a harmful risk to children. Violent and sexually explicit images that are constantly streamed through video games, reality television, news shows, and the World Wide Web serve to desensitize youth to what is acceptable behavior and what should be off limits.
On the other end of the spectrum, since 1980, the increase in childhood obesity represents an unprecedented burden on children’s health. Thirty percent of children ages 6 – 19 are either overweight or “at risk” of being overweight. In addition, an estimated 80% of overweight adolescents continue to be obese in adulthood. What relation does this have to the technology revolution? Childhood obesity has been linked to media usage and its various forms of advertising.
During the period in which childhood obesity has dramatically increased, there has been an explosion in media targeted to children. Much of this media is laden with elaborate advertising campaigns that promote high-calorie, low nutrition foods such as candy, soda, and snacks. It is estimated that the typical child sees about 40,000 ads a year on TV alone. Add to that the fact that more than eight out of ten (85%) of the top food brands that target children through TV advertising also use branded websites to market to children online.
From the standpoint of social development, where does the barrage of individualized media leave our youth? Quite possibly detached, isolated, unable to properly and fully interact face-to-face with others, and depending on their level of isolation, unable to relate to the needs of others or build lasting relationships. Teens and tweens must learn to exercise impulse control in an environment that is alternately a vacuum and a galaxy of possibilities.
How do we balance the influence of various media? When used properly and kept in check, technology can be a tremendous tool and asset to everyday living. Digital literacy and online citizenship are critical skills parents and educators must instill in today’s youth. The responsibility for controlling the methods and manner in which young people use all forms of media lies in all of us by our example, discipline, and common sense.
Whether you are a parent, educator, or both, recognize that the risks are real. Create balance by using and watching media together with these impressionable young people. Those who take an active role alongside their children, as well as talking about the risks and rewards of media use, are employing the most effective strategy adults can utilize to help youth become selective and critical media consumers. Place parameters on how much time can be spent with various media and the manner in which it is used. Monitor young people’s online interactions. As a parent, seize advantage of the tremendous amount of resources available to police your children’s media consumption.
It’s safe to say that the global technology revolution is here to stay and its place in our lives will only expand, including innovations not yet created. With this in mind, together let’s take control of technology, before technology takes control of our youth.
For more information about children, health, and the media, visit the KAISER FAMILY FOUNDATION at www.kff.org.