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Most teens think they can multitask while getting screen time. They can’t.

November 3, 2015 at 6:25 PM EDT
Today's teens and tweens are constantly connecting -- to TV, computers, smartphones and tablets. Kids between 8 and 12 report spending an average of 4.5 hours a day in front of a screen, while teenagers spend more than 6.5 hours a day, not including school or homework. Judy Woodruff learns more about a new study from James Steyer of Common Sense Media.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Most of us are spending more time with screens than ever before, from TV and computers, to the smartphones we carry in our pockets.

A new report on media use by teens and tweens shows that may be even more true for children. The survey of 2,600 kids between the ages of 8 and 18 paints a picture of constant connection. Children between 8 and 12 reported spending an average of four-and-a-half-hours a day using a screen, and nearly six hours consuming media of any kind.

Among teenagers, average screen time was more than six-and-a-half-hours a day and almost nine hours with media overall. Those totals don’t count educational uses in school or for homework.

Joining me now to dig into the findings is James Steyer. He is the CEO of Common Sense Media. It’s a nonprofit children’s advocacy and media rating organization that is behind today’s report.

Welcome to the NewsHour James Steyer.

So, just remind us. Your organization looks at how young people use media.

JAMES STEYER, Common Sense Media: That’s right, and how it affects their lives, how it affects them in school. And then we advocate on behalf of kids in schools across the country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you did this survey. We said 2,600 people 8 to 18.

JAMES STEYER: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What were the main findings?

JAMES STEYER: Well, the sheer volume. I mean, the opening that you just did, Judy, nine hours a day on average is what teenagers spend with media and technology.

I mean, think about it. That’s way more than they spend with their parents, with teachers, even more time than they spend sleeping.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sleeping.

JAMES STEYER: The number-one activity in their life now is media and technology.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what did — and you made a distinction between, again, what, the tweens — this is the 8- to 12-year-olds — are doing vs. teenagers.

JAMES STEYER: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How are they spending that time? What are they doing?

JAMES STEYER: Well, first of all, there is no one archetype. There is no one-size-fits-all kid.

And so you have kids on social media, watching TV, listening to music, even reading books, remember them, and then doing different forms of media, but the bottom line is the sheer volume of time that kids spend today means that they have a 24/7 reality with media and technology that’s shaping their lives in so my many ways.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you found, I saw, that a lot of what they’re doing is multitasking. They’re listening to music while they doing their homework or watching videos while they’re doing something else.

JAMES STEYER: Right.

And the truth, as a parent of four kids who actually multitask, against their parents’ advice, you cannot multitask and concentrate on your homework. But two-thirds of the teenagers that were surveyed say that they continue to multitask, meaning they’re on Facebook or Instagram or texting their friends, while they’re doing their homework.

They’re supposed to be reading Shakespeare, but they’re texting their friends.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But we start to hear that their brains are wired differently? And they are able to do some multitasking. So, what’s the answer about that?

JAMES STEYER: Well, the truth is multitasking really doesn’t work. It’s a myth.

Some of my colleagues at Stanford University did a major study on this a couple of years ago, and showed that you simply can’t have two conversations at once and you can’t concentrate on more than one thing well. Think about how important homework it is to concentrate on information.

So, the multitasking finding in this study has very big implications for schools, and also for parents giving guidance to their kids.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What are the implications, and how much do parents know? You asked these teenagers and tweens how much do their parents know about what they’re doing. What did they say?

JAMES STEYER: And you know what they said? They don’t know very much.

Of course, we didn’t grow up with these devices. That’s a big part of it. But, also, I think that one of the things that we really see from this study is that parents need to look in the mirror. You have got to look at your own behavior. If you’re glued to your cell phone all the time, if you’re bringing your devices to the dining room table or to the restaurant and you’re not having conversations with your kids when you’re present with them because you’re too busy with your e-mail or your text messages, what example are you setting?

So I think this report, while it displays this remarkable impact of media and technology on kids, also sends a clear message to parents about their own behavior.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about to schools? What can schools, teachers, educators do? What should they think about?

JAMES STEYER: Well, I think, first and foremost, every kid in this society needs to learn digital literacy and citizenship, the safe, smart, ethical use of digital devices. We all hear about cyber-bullying and privacy violations and really not-so-good stuff that happens on media and technology platforms.

So, schools need to teach this just like they taught driver’s ed or sex ed. It’s a basic part of life today. And I think the second thing they can do if you look at multitasking is teach kids, you can’t do your homework while you’re also Facebooking your friends. And you need to concentrate.

Now, this is an ongoing challenge. But I actually think that the report is a message to everybody in this country about we have to recognize that this is a reality that our kids are living in. But there’s something we can all do to make sure it’s a positive reality for our kids.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But how much of this is made harder, James Steyer, by the fact that so much of it is out of sight of parents or any other adult in that child’s life, because it is on a device, so much of it, that others can’t see?

JAMES STEYER: That’s right.

That’s a great question, Judy, because in the old days, we used to talk about no TV in the bedroom, no video game machine in the bedroom. Well, with your teenagers, you have got to tell them you can’t take your cell phone to bed. By the way, it really interferes with sleep.

So, you have to have very different rules, but I actually think it’s important for parents to understand that phones get in the way of sleep. They stimulate the brain. You should have a place not in the bedroom and not in the dining room where devices can be parked.

And I do think we’re literally having to set new rules of the road for families and for young people across the country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: If parents are out there watching this, and teens themselves and educators, where do they go to — is there a set of rules to follow, or should every family try to figure this out for themselves?

JAMES STEYER: I think there are a set of rules.

Shamelessly, I will say, look, Common Sense Media is a large organization that gives out tips and tools to everybody. But I think that every school in this country should be teaching the basics of digital citizenship to parents and to kids. It’s as important to educate parents about it as it is to kids.

I think there are rules out there, and they’re not that complicated. It’s basic common sense. You need to put the device away at times. You need to remember that the most important conversations you ever have are face to face.

But, in the long run, the genie is out of the bottle. This world’s here to stay, so we have to set new rules for our kids and for ourselves.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And maybe sometimes take that device away from your child?

JAMES STEYER: Absolutely.

(LAUGHTER)

JAMES STEYER: I mean, Judy, it’s not — by the way, if they’re a teenager, that’s a pretty hard thing to do.

But, absolutely, you should do that. Media and technology are a privilege, not a right, and that is part of parenting. You have to take the device away. I’m sorry to tell you that, but every parent, including the Steyer family, needs to do that, and yours as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you for the advice.

(LAUGHTER)

JAMES STEYER: James Steyer, Common Sense Media.

Parenting is evolving.

JAMES STEYER: It sure is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you.

JAMES STEYER: Good to see you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you.

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