Educators face a growing challenge in trying to compete for their students’ attention with near-constant access to entertainment media outside of school, a new study suggests.
Today’s technology enables children to have nearly 24-hour media access, and many are choosing to spend an average of close to eight hours per day using entertainment media, according to research from the Kaiser Family Foundation.
The study, “Generation M2: Media in the Lives of eight- to 18-Year-Olds,” found that children devote an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes to using entertainment media during a typical day. However, because they spend so much of that time “media multitasking,” they manage to fit a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes worth of media content into that 7 and a half hours. The report identifies media multitasking as using more than one medium at a time.
“Generation M2” is the third in a serious of large-scale, nationally representative surveys by Kaiser about young people’s media use. It includes data from three time periods—1999, 2004, and 2009. The most recent report is based on a survey conducted between October 2008 and May 2009 of 2,002 third through twelfth grade students ages 8-18, including a self-selected subsample of 702 respondents who completed seven-day media use diaries, which were used to calculate multitasking proportions.
The study found that high levels of media multitasking also contribute to the large amount of media young people consume each day. About four in 10 seventh through twelfth graders said they use an additional medium “most” of the time they’re listening to music (43 percent), using a computer (40 percent), or watching TV (39 percent).
Paul Olean, director of marketing for interactive teaching technology provider mimio, said he was not surprised by the survey results. Olean said he sees the burden this increase in entertainment media use puts on teachers.
“The relationship to that and the classroom seems to place a greater burden on teachers to compete for [students’] attention and keep the student engaged. While interactive teaching technologies are not the whole answer, they are [an] instrument by which teachers can break through the clutter,” he said. “When teachers are given the opportunity to [use interactive technologies,] they are in a better position to compete with the commercial media for the minds of the student.”
Stephen Balkam, chief executive officer of the Family Online Safety Institute, attended the Jan. 20 event announcing the survey’s findings and said attendees seemed surprised with the results.
“I think everyone in the hall was somewhat taken aback by the degree of increase in media consumption,” he said. “I know that one of the authors had said five years ago that he thought we had reached the ceiling of how much media kids could consume, and yet there was this dramatic increase.”
Balkam added that handheld technologies have contributed to the swell.
“And part of why there was this increase was the mobile technology that allows kids to walk around with the internet in their pockets, basically. To have it on the school bus, to have it at playtime, to have it when they’re going to bed. In Japan they’ve created a waterproof cell phone, so now kids can take it in the shower with them,” he said.
According to the report, mobile media device ownership increased dramatically among 8- to 18-year-olds, from 39 percent to 66 percent for cell phones, and from 18 percent to 76 percent for iPods and other MP3 players. During this period, cell phones and iPods became true multimedia devices, the report said.
In fact, young people now spend more time listening to music, playing games, and watching TV on their cell phones (a total of 49 minutes daily) than they spend talking on them (33 minutes), the survey found.
Balkam said the findings highlight the need for schools and teachers to revisit their methodologies.
“What we have now is a situation where kids are having to power down when they get to school and basically go from the 21st century to the 19th century in terms of methodology and approach,” he said. “That’s not true for all schools, and that’s not true for all teachers, but by far the majority of schools simply do not know how to integrate the technology that’s in the schools—the computers themselves—and most are clueless about how to integrate the technology that kids bring into school.”
To make that change, Balkam said educators must blur the lines between what they consider to be entertainment and what they consider education—although, he noted, the idea faces resistance.
“We’re at that stage now, and what is so extraordinary is that kids are far more clued in to how the devices work and where to go while on them,” he said. “And the parents and the teachers are trying desperately to catch up.”
The report states that while the study cannot establish a cause-and-effect relationship between media use and grades, there are differences between heavy and light media users.
About half (47 percent) of heavy media users say they usually get fair or poor grades, meaning mostly Cs or lower, compared to 23 percent of light users. These differences might or might not be influenced by their media use patterns. Heavy users are defined as young people who consume more than 16 hours of media a day, and light users are young people who consume less than three hours of media a day.
But Balkam noted that the study did not differentiate between the different types of entertainment media.
“I don’t feel as pessimistic as some people did in responding to that. Yes, there must be a balance, yes, there must be a time when kids switch off somewhat. I think that to be constantly stimulated by your cell phone buzzing or constantly updating your Facebook account, anything that gets to sort of obsessive levels can’t be healthy,” he said.
Balkam said school and district leaders need to rethink teaching and learning by providing professional development for existing teachers and recruiting new teachers who are comfortable with interactive technology use.
“I think we’re at a generational shift. In five, 10, 15 years, the kids who are growing up with the internet, particularly the mobile internet, who will then become the next generation of teachers will find it far easier to integrate this,” he said. “I think what we’re having is a generation of digital immigrants trying to teach digital natives. And there’s a mismatch here.”
Jean Westcott, senior marketing and publicity manager for International Publishers Marketing and author of Digitally Daunted: The Consumer’s Guide to Taking Control of the Technology in Your Life, said the study holds value for those who might not have considered just how much technology is rooted in children’s everyday lives.
Westcott said she was shocked with how fast media use has increased from five and 10 years ago.
But just because today’s students spend more time on iPods and in front of the computer does not mean those behaviors, when within reason, are unhealthy, she said.
“I think that once we absorb that this is how our adolescents spend their lives, we need to see how that may affect the other parts of their lives,” Westcott said. “We may be tempted to simply demonize those behaviors, but instead we need to look at how it shapes how kids relate to one another, to their families, their teachers, and their world at large.”
In fact, educators can use the study to learn more about their students and how students use technology.
“Does it make forming and maintaining friendships easier? Does it encourage gossiping or bullying? Does it allow for you to be a supportive community or build school spirit?” Westcott asked. “Teachers can ask their students if electronic communication between the teacher or the school and students makes things easier. No more forgotten textbooks or homework? Can class web pages have suggested resources for homework help or test review?”
Westcott said it’s also important to consider those students who do not have home access to technology and think about how they can gain access to the educational tools that require a computer or high-speed internet connection.
“Teachers also need to consider how technology has changed the way that information is accessed and perhaps learn from their students,” Westcott said. “Teachers can look for continuing education offerings that [help them] learn how to adapt lesson plans to take advantage of these tools and how to teach students to use them responsibly.