Media Use by Teens Shoots Up

Church Reaching Out to Youth in a Digital World

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, JAN. 31, 2010 ( Who says the Church is out of touch with the modern world? In his recent message for World Communications Day, Benedict XVI urges priests to communicate through the digital media.

«The world of digital communication, with its almost limitless expressive capacity, makes us appreciate all the more St. Paul’s exclamation: ‘Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel,'» the Pope commented.

Just a few days before the message was published, a study released on Jan. 21 by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed just how important it is for the Church to be present in these rapidly developing forms of media.

«Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8 to 18 Year Olds» was the third in a series of large-scale national surveys by the foundation about young people’s media use. 

It revealed that today 8-18 year olds devote an average of seven hours and 38 minutes to using media in a typical day, adding up to more than 53 hours a week. This isn’t the whole amount either, as many of them use more than one form of media at a time. If the overlapping consumption of media is counted separately, then there is a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes daily.

The report is based on a survey conducted among a nationally representative sample of 2,002 third to 12th grade students aged 8-18. In addition, a self-selected sub-group of 702 respondents completed seven-day media use diaries, which were used to calculate multitasking proportions.

Compared to the last survey carried out by the Kaiser Family Foundation in 2004, the amount of time spent with media increased by an hour and 17 minutes a day over the past five years.

The report identified the revolution in mobile and online media as one of the main causes behind the increase in media usage. In the past five years the time spent reading decreased slightly compared to the increase in time spent on digital media.

Mobile media

The chances are good that for an average teenager the first and the last thing they do every day is to check their mobile phone, the report observed. Other developments in mobile media technology mean that while television once had to be watched by sitting in front of a TV, now programs are available on a laptop and mobile devices. 

According to the report, 20% of media consumption in the group surveyed took place via mobile devices, and almost another hour consists in «old» content such as TV shows, which are now seen via a computer or other forms of downloading.

Young people’s consumption of media is also facilitated by having access to it in their bedrooms. No less than 71% of all 8-18 year olds surveyed have a TV in their room. In addition, half have a video game player (50%) or cable TV (49%), and a third have a computer (36%) and Internet access (33%) in their room.

As well, over the last five years the percentage of 8-18 year olds owning a laptop has climbed from 12% to 29%, while mobile phone ownership has jumped from 39% to 66%. Those with an iPod or other MP3 player went from 18% to 76%.

One characteristic of media use by young people that the survey revealed was the huge jump that takes place once they reach the 11-14 age group. Young people in this age bracket see an increase of more than three hours a day in time spent with media — an increase of four hours a day in total if multi-tasking is counted. 

This change means that in total the 11-14 age group averages just under eight hours and 40 minutes of media use a day, or nearly 12 when multitasking is taken into account. As the report pointed out this exposure to the media takes place at a time when they are making the transition into adolescence.


The report looked into several concerns over young people spending more and more time using the media. Regarding physical activity the survey found that contrary to the popular belief that media use substitutes getting exercise, young people who are the heaviest media users report spending similar amounts of time exercising or being physically active as other young people their age who are not heavy media users.

On the matter of academic results, the news is not so good. Children who are heavy media users are more likely to report getting fair or poor grades than other children. According to the survey results, 47% of all heavy media users say they usually get fair or poor grades, compared to 23% of light media users. 

Moreover, this correlation between media exposure and grades is constant when factors such as age, gender, race and parental education are taken into account. At the same time, the authors of the study pointed out that their research cannot establish whether there is a cause and effect relationship between media use and grades.

When it comes to the question of happiness and media use, the survey found that the vast majority of young people tend to score quite high on an index of feeling content. Nevertheless, those who are less content spend more time with media than those who are at the top of the contentedness index. As with the matter of academic results the report stated that it has not been determined whether there is a cause and effect relationship between media use and personal contentment. 


Another dimension of media use by young people the report examined was the topic of parental control. For a start, the survey found that many young people live in homes where the TV is usually on during meals and is often left on in the background, whether anyone is watching or not. 

The students were also asked to report if their parents set rules for the various forms of media. The majority of 8-18 year olds said they don’t have any rules about the type of media content they can use or the amount of time they can spend. One exception was that 52% did say they have rules about what they can do on the computer.

Less than half — 46% — said they have rules about what they’re allowed to watch on TV. For video games and music the respective percentages were 30% and 26%.

Overall, parents are more likely to restrict the type of content their children can consume rather than the amount of time they can spend consuming it. So, 46% of kids replied saying they have rules about what they can watch on TV, compared to 28% who said they have rules about how long they can watch.

As could be expected, parental restrictions are more common among the younger age groups. Only 3% of all 8-10 year olds reported not having any rules, compared to 30% of all 15-18 year olds. 

As well, parents enforce the rules more strictly for younger children. By the time children are in their mid-teens, enforcement drops considerably. In the older groups only 12% reported having rules about video games they can play or music they can listen to. And 26% had rules about TV they can or can’t watch.

In his message for World Communications Day, the Pope expressed his desire that priests and consecrated men and women use the digital media to enable God’s message to walk the virtual highways of cyberspace so that Our Lord can knock on the doors of our homes and hearts and enter into our lives. A new way of responding to the command of Christ to go and preach the Gospel to the ends of the Earth, whether physically or virtually.

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