Our Youth and the Digital Age

Our Youth and the Digital AgeA report by the Kaiser Family Foundation presents some unsettling statistics on just how much time America’s youth devotes to television, social media, video games, texting, etc. in today’s digital age.

Children ages 8-18 spend an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes (7:38) daily on entertainment media. And because a lot of that time is spent multitasking, such as surfing the web or looking at their smartphones while watching TV, they manage to clock in 10 hours and 45 minutes (10:45) worth of content. But that is all in addition to the 1 ½ hours spent texting and the half hour spent talking on the telephone. That’s over 9 hours of solid screen time on a typical day for a typical American youth.

That study was done in 2009, following previous studies done in 1999 and 2004. One can only assume the 2014-2015 numbers are higher, based on the omnipresence of digital devices, iPhones, Androids, tablets, etc.

Way More Than Four Channels

In decades past, we had ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, and maybe a one or two other channels (a few more if you had cable). For movies, we went to the movie theater or maybe the VCR. Even with video games, there were some home consoles (Atari), but often we’d hit the arcade or the local grocery store where they had a couple machines. For better or worse, we at least got out of the house.

Many parents are rightfully concerned about the hours their children spend watching TV, online and on the phone. There are the health issues associated with an excess of sedentary (sitting down) time. There is concern over the psychological ramifications when our youth appear to live in an online or digital world where the real one takes a backseat. Then there’s the ever-shortening attention span.

Where we once had channel surfing a handful of stations, we are now faced with a continuous stream of entertainment, information, and communication in the form of videos, sound bites, excerpts, posts, tweets, texts, hashtags, blogs, microblogs, Flickr, Tumblr, Instagram, Snapchat, and whatever else just got invented. Some videos are in fact nothing more than a string of one-second clips. While all the mew media is fascinating, it is also of concern in how it can affect a young person’s ambition or lack of it.

Thankfully, many kids still read books. Even if they’re digital books, they’re at least books. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And they require the reader to use his or her imagination.

A Foreign Language

The younger generation is versed in a language that is wholly unfamiliar to their parents and even some of their older siblings. It is dense with abbreviations, slang, symbols and code phrases. It is also full of references to characters in video games, terminology within social media sites, and technical computer jargon. Most parents have gotten as far as Facebook and that’s about it. Many teens have veered away from Facebook – because who wants to be on a site that includes their parents and even their grandparents?! The kids may use it, but that’s not all they’re using, that’s for sure.

The concern about teens (and younger) and internet pornography is very well-founded. According to one study, 93% of boys and 62% of girls are exposed to internet pornography before the age of 18. That’s not very surprising considering its ease of access. Even if a household has filtering software installed, tech-savvy teens can often find ways around it, plus they can visit a friend’s house where no such precautions are taken. Other obvious concerns are your kids watching content involving violence, drug use, and anything else you may not want them exposed to.

Real Communication and Education

The first thing any parent should do is have a discussion with their child or teenager. Communication and education are the primary tools for prevention. Take the example of drug and alcohol abuse, a subject of which I am highly familiar:

Telling kids “Just Say No!” only goes so far and can have the exact opposite effect of what was intended. It must be taken further; kids need to understand what drugs are, what they do, and why they’d be smart to steer clear. The same goes for screen time, television, internet, social media, etc. Start by opening up the dialogue.

One thing kids should understand is that texting, LOL, LMFAO, IRL, IDK, OMG, WTF, and the rest of it, does not constitute REAL communication. It is at the very best, abbreviated or truncated communication. Imagine sitting in a coffee shop and having a meaningful conversation – that is REAL two-way communication, the exchange of real and meaningful ideas and emotions.

Our youth should also understand that texting or constantly looking at their phone during a job interview or sales interview will more than likely lose them the job or the deal, in addition to being extremely unprofessional. I speak from experience where I’ve interviewed potential applicants who were looking and laughing at their phone while I’m asking them questions. They didn’t get the job.

Our youth must be enlightened on some basics of the real world in which they live. “IRL” means “In Real Life” but it also means the world in which they’ll be living, reporting for work, paying the bills, solving problems, making a difference, and pursuing their dreams.

Health Concerns

Spending all your time in front of a TV or computer and not getting sufficient exercise can result in obesity, type 2 diabetes and other health issues. It can even be a factor in depression. When kids are up too late on their phones and computers, they aren’t getting enough sleep. Lack of sufficient rest also leads to depression, anxiety, and interferes with learning.

A lot of schools don’t have gym class anymore which is a shame and a crime. It falls on parents to get their kids outside and doing something active, whether it’s sports, kicking a ball around, running, hiking, or just taking a walk. Some parents get really upset when their kids come home dirty after playing outside. They also bundle their children up in the winter as though it were a Russian snowstorm. Parents with kids that bike or skateboard get worried and can go a little overboard on the protective gear.

I’m all for helmets and safety, but I will add that parents should be able to let their children get out and play. Keeping them cooped up all day may ease the parents’ state of mind, but it doesn’t do much for youth development. When I was young, I was out until dark (and as a teenager, past it) all the time. Unfortunately, we live in an age where it is common for parents to fear for their kids and don’t want them out of their sight. This is understandable.

I would bike, skateboard, walk, or take the bus everywhere. I was often with a group and felt safe that way, but the America of my youth was different than it is now. Granted, I lived in a tough neighborhood in Detroit and things didn’t always go great for me. The city and neighborhood you live in, the age of your kids, and your household rules will determine how you deal with the issue. Going on regular family outings is one way to deal with it.

After School Programs

In an increasing number of households, both parents work and even have more than one job each. People are just busier and busier these days. This often leads to a situation where they don’t appear to pay much attention to their kids after school. It’s not that they neglect them; it’s just that the kids are occupied with their digital media, games, and entertainment – all which ends up being rather convenient by default for the parents.

Mom and dad are extremely busy and son and daughter go to their rooms after school and no one talks for most of the evening.

One fix on this is after school programs. There are plenty of programs for kids to do after school that include sports, crafts, shop, arts, music, tutoring, vocational training and many other activities. Some cost money and some don’t. After school activities are a great way to keep kids from being digital junkies while also keeping them off the streets.

Ignite Passion

Talk to your kids and find out what they’re interested in. See what ignites their passion and gets them into ACTION. Whatever it may be, work with it, encourage it and augment it. Maybe they are into computers and coding. That’s great and becoming tech-proficient is a way to secure a career, but work to balance it with some outdoor activity. Instill in them the idea that a competent techie who is also in great physical shape is a force to be reckoned with.

Actually using the computer to produce something – code, design, art, music, etc. – is far better than simply surfing the web and making YouTube comments. A friend of mine has seen a lot of movies (thanks, Netflix!). He’s also a great writer, so he decided recently to read some books about screenplays and write his first screenplay. He’s turning his hobbies into a profession and pursuing a goal!

Family Business

Here’s another thing you can do: Start a family business!

I know a family that sells balloons over the summer. They rent out booths at fairs and festivals and sell “walking animal balloons”, and they make it a family endeavor with their kids on-board. It gets the whole family out of the house, into action and making some extra money. Use your imagination and see what kind of family business you could start. In doing so, you are teaching your kids entrepreneurship, teamwork and other valuable skills.

You Set the Rules

Lastly, you have every right as a parent to set forth rules and limit screen time. Deciding that dinner and other meals are to be device-free is one call you may wish to make. I would only recommend that any rules you set forth be accompanied with some conversation.

Like so many other things, it falls upon parents and responsible adults to guide our youth in a positive manner. In doing so, we help them reach toward their goals and achieve their true potential.