The Air They Breathe: How the Fight to Protect Children from Media is Over

Written by: David Casalaspi

Primary Source: Green & Write, January 26, 2016

A startling study by the nonprofit organization Common Sense Media has found that children are spending more time engaged with entertainment media than anything else in their lives. [1]

The report, The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens, is based on a survey of 2,658 young people ages eight to eighteen about their daily use of media and technology. It reports that teenagers (ages 13-18) spend 9 hours a day consuming entertainment media outside of school. Meanwhile, pre-teens (ages 8-12) spend a total of 6 hours a day doing so. [2] In all, teenagers appear to spend more time with media than they do sleeping, eating, or spending time with parents, friends, or teachers. In the words of James Steyer from Common Sense Media: “Media and technology are almost like the air [young people] breathe now.”

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Fifteen years ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that parents limit their children’s total amount of screen time to no more than two hours per day. But this report is one more signal that it may be time to rethink how realistic such a limit might actually be in the age of mobile devices and 24/7 connectivity. No longer can educators or parents (aside from a few beatniks and contemporary Thoreaus) really hope to prevent their children from engaging with media. Instead, they should aim to teach young people to engage with media in responsible and developmentally appropriate ways.

An Evolving Role for Parents and Educators

Schools and other socializing institutions (like families) have little choice but to embrace the times and recognize the new obligations they have to help manage and direct the effects of media exposure.

One thing that parents can do to help their children develop responsible use habits is to reflect on their own media usage and consider how they might model appropriate media consumption for their children. Parents still have the strongest effect on the development of their children, and children often learn by emulating adults in their presence. If parents are checked out in front of the TV or easily distracted by their iPhone or iPad, then children will most likely develop those same habits. Parents can also take steps to provide a home environment that allows children to develop naturally, especially in the early years. According to psychology professor Rachel Barr, a baby playing in the corner of a room with the television on will experience much less development than a baby playing without the television on simply because the television, with its flashing images and disruptive noises, can cause a break in the child’s natural play routine. The same could be said when a child is playing with his/her parent and a nearby cellphone rings or vibrates.

The ubiquity of media also requires educators to rethink their roles in their local communities. Whether students are engaged with media in the classroom or not, they will spend the majority of their time outside of school with it. As such, teachers, librarians, and counselors should all play a bigger role educating students how to use technology responsibly – to become good citizens in a digital world. Moreover, they can use their standing as child development professionals to educate parents about how they too can model responsible media use at home and use it purposefully to promote growth. Indeed, scholarship refutes a prevalent myth among adults that technology by itself can foster child development by engaging children’s imagination or exposing them to text or automated voices. In the popular book Tap, Click, Read: Growing Readers in a World of Screens, Lisa Guernsey and Michael Levine argue that young children’s interactions with technology only yield gains in early literacy skills when the technology is used purposefully by adults to prompt subsequent conversation and real social interaction. Simply giving young children an iPad without any context or intention for learning is unlikely to accomplish much.

After reading excerpts of Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness on your laptop, this baby is hoping you will have a follow-up discussion about the book. Children will only gain from their exposure to media if it is done in a purposeful manner. Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

After reading excerpts of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness on your laptop, this baby is hoping you will have a follow-up discussion with him about the book. Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

A Powerful Force

In sum, media is an awesomely powerful force. It is not only the “air adolescents breathe” but the source of much of their knowledge about themselves, their world, and their place in that world. In the 1984 song “No Surrender,” Bruce Springsteen sings: “We learned more from a three-minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school.” Only today, teenagers are not listening to just a three-minute record. They are immersing themselves in a daily, nine-hour digital media routine. Whether we like it or not, children will continue to live in this atmosphere for the foreseeable future. Parents and educators thus have a solemn responsibility to make sure the air their children breathe doesn’t leave them emotionally, socially, and cognitively impaired.


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[1] The study defined “entertainment media” as including the following activities: watching TV, movies, and videos; playing video/computer/mobile games; listening to music; using social media; using the Internet and browsing websites; reading; listening to music; and using digital devices for other purposes (such as video-chatting, or creating digital art or music). It does not include texting due to the difficulty respondents have estimating accurately how much time they spend doing that activity.

[2] Because the term “entertainment media” includes reading and listening to music, the total amount of “screen time” is a little lower: 6 hours and 40 minutes for teenagers and 4 hours and 36 minutes for pre-teens.

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David Casalaspi
David Casalaspi is a third-year student in the Educational Policy Ph.D. Program. Before beginning his graduate studies, he attended the University of Virginia, where he received his B.A. in History and spent his senior year completing a thesis on the rise of federal accountability policy between 1989 and 2002. Additionally, while at UVA, David designed and taught a two-credit seminar for undergraduates on the political history of the American education system and also received some practical experience with policymaking through work with the City Council of Charlottesville, VA. His current research focuses on the politics and history of education, and particularly the way that education rhetoric and issue framing efforts affect the implementation of school reforms.