Parents Fret That Dialing Up Interferes With Growing Up
By MIREYA NAVARRO
KATHERINE KELIHER, 9, of Lakeville, Minn., could sleep an extra hour every weekday morning if she wanted to. But she would rather get up early, sit down at her computer and spend that time trading instant messages with her best friends, five girls she will soon see at school.
"We just talk about, like, 'What are you going to do today?' and stuff like that," Katherine said.
Her mother, Judy Keliher, says she isn't looking to deprive Katherine of her messaging access. "For fourth graders this is critical," she said, understanding that video games, cellphones, iPods and other high-tech gear are just part of growing up in a digital world. But Ms. Keliher is concerned about the amount of time her children, including a son, Matthew, 14, spend there.
So she is asserting some control. She says she will allow only one computer in the house and limits Matthew's and Katherine's screen time each night. "I don't like them to be home and be lazy, not at the expense of doing other things that need to get done," said Ms. Keliher, 43, who is divorced and works full time as the manager of a hardware store. "I just put it into the whole scope of a healthy lifestyle."
In interviews and surveys many parents say that their children spend too much time in front of computers and on cellphones. Some parents worry that long, sedentary hours spent at a computer may lead to weight gain, or that an excess of instant and text messaging comes at the expense of learning face-to-face social skills. Some complain of having to compete for their childrens' attention more than ever.
A report on teenagers and technology released this summer by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that teenagers' use of computers has increased significantly. More than half of teenage Internet users go online daily, up from 42 percent in 2000, the report said; 81 percent of those users play video games, up from 52 percent.
Instant messaging has become "the digital communication backbone of teens' daily lives," used by 75 percent of online teenagers, according to the Pew report. "Parents are really struggling with this," said David Walsh, the president of the National Institute on Media and the Family, a nonprofit educational organization in Minneapolis that began a program this year to help families reduce screen time and increase physical activity. "As the gadgets keep evolving, they keep consuming more and more of our kids' time. Our kids need a balanced diet of activity, and the problem is that it's getting out of balance. I don't think as a society we're dealing with it yet."
Technological advances have produced generational conflicts before, of course, whether the gadget was a rabbit-ear television set, a transistor radio or a personal computer. The young would find the latest thing exciting and freeing. Parents would worry that it was distracting and cramping academic and social development. So it goes today. Only now it is not a single high-tech wonder that concerns parents but a seemingly constant and ever-more-sophisticated tide of them.
As new technological devices beckon - Apple recently rolled out an iPod that can play video - young people are not necessarily shedding old media. A survey of 8- to 18-year-olds by the Kaiser Family Foundation this year found that the total amount of media content young people are exposed to each day has gone up by more than one hour over the past five years, to eight and a half hours.
But because they are multitasking, young people are packing that content into an average of six and a half hours a day, including three hours watching television, nearly two hours listening to music, more than an hour on the computer outside of homework (more than double the average of 27 minutes in 1999) and just under an hour playing video games.
Neither the Kaiser nor the Pew report found evidence of impending doom in all that exposure. The Pew report noted, for example, that despite their great affection for technology, teenagers still spent somewhat more time socializing with friends in person than on the telephone or through e-mail or instant and text messaging. And as teenagers get older, the report found, they tend to be less interested in diversions like online games and more inclined to use the Web for information.
"It's not something I think is a crisis," said Elizabeth Hartigan, the managing editor of L.A. Youth, a newspaper and Web site for high school students in Los Angeles. "Teen pregnancy is a crisis."
For a great number of young people, Ms. Hartigan said, high-tech gear was not an issue because their families can't afford much beyond a television set. Others are just not that interested. "Some kids get really into it, but some kids are obsessed with fashions or boyfriends or cars," she said.
Ariel Edwards-Levy, 16, a staff writer with L.A. Youth, agreed that computer use is "a sedentary activity, and if you let yourself be obsessive, it's an issue."
"But some parents don't understand that it's a different medium," she said. "It's mostly just a tool, and it can be used very well. The resources online are amazing. You can meet people and reconnect with people."
Many parents say they are limiting screen time, checking their children's Web-surfing histories and using filters to block objectionable material. Another strategy is to keep only one computer in the house and to place it in a common area, like the family room, better to monitor children's online habits.
Paula Hagan Bennett, a lawyer from the San Francisco Bay area, says she uses a variety of methods to manage how and when her four boys - ages 16, 14, 12 and 5 - are connected. For the two older boys that means controlling the use of their cellphones. "It's not for them to be chattering," said Ms. Bennett, 48, who insists that calls are for contacting parents, not friends, and should last no longer than three minutes.
For the 12-year-old it means limiting computer screen time and disabling the instant messaging function. He was unhappy about it, she said, and had no trouble reinstalling it when she wasn't looking. (Ms. Bennett prevailed.) But she said she views instant messaging as she does most cellphone conversations among young people.
"It's a waste of time," she said, "because most of the time they're talking about nothing." As for her 5-year-old, technology is not yet an issue, but Ms. Bennett said that in affluent Marin County, where she lives, she has seen young children watching "Barney and Friends" on portable DVD players in the backs of cars.
Linda Folsom, a media producer for the Walt Disney Company theme parks, decided to stick to a "motherly nag mode" rather than impose restrictions on her 14-year-old daughter, Alana, who "tends to be constantly on the I.M.," Ms. Folsom said.
While doing homework Alana will write a paragraph, respond to an instant message, then go back to her schoolwork, her mother said. "She says the I.M. is related to the project she's working on," Ms. Folsom said. "But if I hear giggling, I put in a comment: 'It doesn't sound like homework to me.' "
But Ms. Folsom, 46, and her husband, Scott, 57, a PTA leader in Los Angeles, said they had no reason to crack down on Alana because she earned good grades and behaved well. But they have insisted that she eat dinner with them and that she practice her clarinet and play soccer.
Alana sees her instant chatting as harmless. "It's just rambling," she said. And it is fun to be able to have a five-way chat with friends, she said. But she said she knows when it's time to type the message: "I'm doing homework. Leave me alone."
"If it starts controlling you rather than you controlling it, that's when you stop," Alana said.
Ms. Folsom said she felt that the technology was robbing her of her daughter's company more and more. There was a time, she said, when father, mother and child would listen to the same music in the car. "Now she plays the iPod, and she's in her own music world," Ms. Folsom said.
David Levy, a University of Washington professor who studies high-tech communications and quality of life, acknowledges that the young have become adept at managing multiple sources of information at once, but he questions whether the ability to multitask has curbed their "ability to focus on a single thing, the ability to be silent and still inside, basically the ability to be unplugged and content."
"That's true for the whole culture," he said. "Most adults have a hard time doing that, too. What we're losing is the contemplative dimension of life. For our sanity, we need to cultivate that."
Some parents seem to be getting that message. When the National Institute on Media and the Family went looking for a few hundred families in Minnesota and Iowa to participate in a research project this year that calls for reducing the amount of time third to fifth graders spend in front of a computer or television screen, 1,300 families signed up.
Ms. Keliher, a Lakeville school board member, is one of the participants. She thought the project would help 9-year-old Katherine "acknowledge the amount of time she spends on the screen."
But as parents try to monitor their children's habits, some said there is also a need to be realistic. "We as parents tend to overreact a little bit to this," Mr. Folsom said. "This is the virtual playground. It's part of growing up."