Major study on youth & media: Let’s take a closer look

A new Kaiser Family Foundation study offers insights into young people’s extensive and growing media use, but its perspective is too much that of the mass-media environment of adults’ own youth.

By Anne Collier

With its fresh, sweeping look at the media lives of US 8-to-18-year-olds, the Kaiser Family Foundation’s just-released “Generation M2” is a tremendous service to parents and educators – but also a subtle disservice. The latter, because it looks at kids’ and teens’ experience with today’s media through the lens of yesterday’s, the mass-media culture we adults grew up in. “The story of media in young people’s lives today is primarily a story of technology facilitating increased consumption,” the authors write, even while a growing body of research shows that the youth-media story is actually more about sharing, playing with, and producing media, individually and collectively, than consuming it. But more on that in a moment. First, the findings….

1. The data

As “one of the largest and most comprehensive publicly available sources of information on the amount and nature of media use among American youth,” this is also Kaiser’s third such study (the first two were done in 1999 and 2004), so it shows usage trends. “Generation M2” also zooms in on individual media and devices, behaviors such as multimedia multitasking, and gender and ethnicity differences in the data. Here are some highlights:

* Nothing but more (almost): Youth media consumption has grown from 6:21 hours/day five years ago to 7:38 today, and they now “pack a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes of media content into those 7.5 hours a day.” The breakdown: Movies and print, 0 growth; 47 more min./day for music/audio; 38 more min./day for “TV content”; 24 more min./day with videogames; and 27 more min./day on computers (though I’m not sure why computers are called media, when they’re more delivery devices). Age-wise, the biggest media-use growth spurt is “when children hit the 11-to-14-year-old age group,” when total media use goes up a whopping 4 hours a day (from 7:51 for kids 8-10 to 11:53 for those 11-14).

* Much more mobile: All that growth in media use was “driven in large part by ready access to mobile devices like cell phones and iPods,” according to the study’s press release – cellphone ownership for 8-to-18-year-olds went from 39% to 66% and iPods and other music players from 18% to 76% for iPods and other MP3 players. Of course parents know that kids spend more time doing everything besides talking on their cellphones (games, music, photo-sharing, video-viewing, etc.: 49 min./day; talking 33 min./day). This study did not consider texting a form of media use, it says, but it did find that people in grades 7-12 spend an average of 1:35/day texting.

* “Parental control”: About 30% of youth “say they have rules about how much time they can spend” with various media. But children who do have rules at their house spend almost 3 hours less time with media a day than those with no rules.

* TV leads in more ways than 1: “TV remains the dominant type of media content consumed, at 4:29 a day,” and 64% of 8-to-18-year-olds “say the TV is usually on during meals; 45% say it’s on “most of the time”; 71% have a TV in their bedroom; 50% have a videogame console in their room. The authors did say that this latest study found for the first time that TV-viewing on *TV sets* went down 25 min./day between 2004 and ’09, but TV-viewing on other devices more than offset that decline: 24 min./day online; 16 a day on MP3 players; 15 a day on cellphones. “All told, 59% (2:39) of young people’s TV-viewing consists of live TV on a TV set, and 41% (1:50) is time-shifted, on DVDs, online, or mobile.]

* Media use & grades. With the caveat that the study “cannot establish a cause and effect relationship between media use and grades,” the authors write that 47% of heavy media users (“the 21% of young people who consume more than 16 hours of media a day”) say they usually get “mostly Cs or lower,” compared to 23% of light users. [“Light users” are the 17% who consume less than 3 hours/day.] Book reading held steady over the past five years at about 25 min./day, but magazine and newspaper reading are both down (“from :14 to :09 for magazines and from :06 to :03 for newspapers”).

* Favorite Net uses: In terms of time, social networking unsurprising topped the list (74% of people in grades 7-12 have profiles), but – surprising to me – they spent only 22 min./day at it, followed by gaming (17 min.) and checking out video sites (15 min.).

* Girls & boys: Girls spend more time than boys in social sites (:25 vs. :19), listening to music (2:33 vs. 2:06), and reading (:43 vs. :33), but not by all that much. The real gap shows up in game playing and video use: console games (:56 boys vs. :14 girls), computer games (:25 vs. :08), and sites like YouTube (:17 vs. :12).

2. Removing the mass-media filter

So are we looking at all this data largely from the context of the media environment we grew up in, where media were consumed, professionally produced (much of it for entertainment), and government-regulated? As we read, are we worried that new media are just a waste of our kids’ time, a distraction, or even a potential health problem (Kaiser’s study appears in its “Media & Health” practice)? The Kaiser report is riddled with the words “consume” and “consumption,” when really what youth do so much more with media now is blog, share, post, text, discuss, remix, and produce, often collaboratively, as mentioned above. As sweeping as this study’s scope was, a study about their consumption is only a small part of today’s youth-media equation.

The report refers to “screen media” vs. “print media,” when what can appear on that Net-connected screen is virtually all traditional media as well as the new, user-generated kind – because the Internet increasingly mirrors all of human life, the behavioral parts (from bullying to mentoring) as well as the consumables (from great literature to research to frat party photos) and creative productions (photos, tunes, videos, podcasts) are there too. Yet, when referring specifically to young people reading text on the screen, the report cites “the latest advice column on a fashion website or a classmate’s posting on a social networking site,” not peers’ blog posts, videos or other creations.

This study wasn’t about the informal learning going on in social media, but that needs consideration in the context of youth media use. [A question asked in the 1999 Kaiser study – about whether time spent using the computer was mainly entertaining, killing time, or learning something – was in fact dropped for the next two studies (see pp. 46 and 47).] It’s important to keep in mind that extensive research into how youth use social media at home, in school, and in after-school programs shows that a lot of learning, not just entertainment, is going on in their media use. In its 2008 report, “Living and Learning with New Media,” the Digital Youth Project found that, “by exploring new interests, tinkering, and ‘messing around’ with new forms of media, [youth] acquire various forms of technical and media literacy…. By its immediacy and breadth of information, the digital world lowers barriers to self-directed learning.” In a paper on videogame-based learning, Digital Youth Project lead investigator, Dr. Mimi Ito, wrote last fall that “online groups mobilizing through games like World of Warcraft, [alternate-reality game] I Love Bees, or [virtual world] Whyville have demonstrated the possibilities of new forms of collaborative problem solving and collective action which exhibit properties of scientific inquiry.”

Probably since the beginning of modern-day-style adolescence, parents have had to adjust to unnerving new kinds and uses of media, but today’s media shift is an order of magnitude different: Not only is it mobile, multimedia, multidirectional, user-produced, one-to-many, many-to-many, and many-to-one; it’s all mixed up with traditional, professionally produced media in the same “place” – the Internet, via proliferating devices – and it’s social and behavioral (see “Youth, adults & the social-media shift”). It’s asking a lot of us adults, so there’s a strange need for both patience (with ourselves and each other as we adjust) and urgency (to hurry up and adjust!). There’s also a need to be alert to mass-media biases in what we read about youth and social media and open to the positive as well as negative implications.

Related links

*Kids pack in nearly 11 hours of media use daily,” by my ConnectSafely co-director, Larry Magid, at CNET and his mp3 file

“>audio interview with the study’s director Kaiser Family Foundation vice president Victoria Rideout, where she makes 2 interesting points: 1) how hard it is to categorize kids’ media use when it’s so fluid (it would be a lot easier if the study were youth-centric, not media- or tech-centric), and 2) how most of kids’ media use right now is what might be called passive and non-productive (which is no surprise when we block social media from school and leave them on their own in new media – see “School & social media: Uber big picture”).
* “If Your Kids Are Awake, They’re Probably Online” in the New York Times, or did that headline writer mean watching TV, as the study actually suggests? The Times reports that “the study’s findings shocked its authors,” then cites the view of Boston pediatrician Michael Rich that it’s “time to stop arguing over whether it was good or bad and accept it as part of children’s environment.” * “Living and Learning with New Media: Summary of Findings from the Digital Youth Project”
* “Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-olds”
* “Youth, adults & the social-media shift” here at NetFamilyNews).

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