Gloomy researchers often tell us that American schoolkids are less capable in math and reading than their peers in 97 countries and several other planets. OK, but are kids in those places adept at simultaneously using computers, listening to music, watching TV, talking on the phone and playing video games? When it comes to media multitasking, young Americans have no peer.
A Kaiser Family Foundation survey of kids age 8-18 finds that "the total amount of media content young people are exposed to each day has increased by more than an hour over the past five years"—from 7 hours 29 minutes to 8 hours 33 minutes. However, because they're consuming multiple media at the same time, "the actual number of hours devoted to media use has remained steady," shifting by just two minutes (from 6:19 to 6:21). Thirty-three percent of kids consume other media "most of the time" while listening to music or using computers for recreation; 28 percent do so while reading; 24 percent do so while watching TV.
Despite the rise of the Internet, video games and whatnot, television remains the dominant medium for kids. In a typical day, 66 percent spend more than an hour watching TV, vs. 44 percent who spend that much time listening to music, 28 percent using computers and 22 percent playing video games. Including prerecorded shows and DVDs/videos, kids spend an average of 3:51 per day watching TV. By comparison, they spend 1:44 listening to music, 1:02 using computers (apart from schoolwork), 0:49 playing video games, and 0:43 reading for recreation. TV also has a central role in the transformation of kids' bedrooms into "multi-media centers." Sixty-eight percent of kids have a TV in their own room; 54 percent have a VCR or DVD player there. Naturally, this correlates with greater usage of TV: Kids with a set in their room watch an average of 1:27 more than other kids.
Experts and parents alike have voiced concern in recent years that the proliferation of media usage pulls kids away from other activities. The research, though, indicates this isn't so: "in fact, it seems that those young people who spend the most time using media are also those whose lives are the most full with family, friends, sports, and other interests." For instance, those classified as "heavy users" of TV spend 2:42 hanging out with their parents, vs. 2:09 for "light users." (That's partly because they watch TV together.) Heavy TV users spend 1:34 daily on "physical activity," vs. 1:25 for light users. Homework is the exception to the rule: Heavy users of TV spend 0:38 on it, while light users spend 0:57.