Children, happiness, TV and the web

Children, happiness, TV and the web

By Greg Toppo, USA TODAY


Being a friend of Chandler DeWitt’s means never having to say “Where are you?”

The freshman at North Carolina’s High Point University says she and her friends have “six or seven ways” to get in touch most days: cellphone, texting, instant messaging, e-mail, Facebook, Twitter and Skype videoconferencing.

“I’m probably on my computer four hours out of the day, doing different stuff for school or talking to people,” says DeWitt, 18, who, for all her connectivity, turns out to be a “light” media user: A new survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation finds that kids spend more than 71/2 hours a day with electronic media, up from about six hours in 1999.

Most young people have a cellphone and an iPod _ã” and nearly one in three own a laptop computer.

But the survey also reveals that the more media they use, the less happy young people tend to be.

Heavy media users, it finds, are more likely to have bad grades, more likely to be “often sad or unhappy,” less likely to get along well with their parents and twice as likely to “get into trouble a lot.”

What’s a “heavy media user”? A child who consumes more than 16 hours of media content in a typical day, according to the study. A “light user” consumes fewer than three hours of media.

Actually, the findings present a sort of chicken-and-egg scenario: Does consuming a lot of media make children’s lives more troubled, or do troubled kids simply consume more media?

Interviews with parents, media experts and a handful of teens suggest it’s a bit of both. In the end, a simple answer seems elusive.

Perhaps it’s that heavy media users have fewer friends? Actually, they’re more likely to say they have “a lot of friends” _ã” 93% vs. 91% for other kids.

Perhaps they don’t get enough exercise? Actually, the survey shows, they somehow cram more physical activity into their days than others _ã” just short of two hours, compared with 1 hour and 44 minutes for light media users.

“It’s really creating a different mode of experiencing childhood,” says Karen Sternheimer, a sociologist at the University of Southern California. “We don’t really know what the endgame is, and that’s what makes people nervous.”

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