A new British study, which reveals that media "multi-tasking" is all the rage among some 10- and 11-year-olds who simultaneously surf TV, laptops, cell phones and other devices.
"Children are doing lots of screen-viewing at the same time, [and] the TV was just a small part of this viewing," noted study lead author Russell Jago, from the Centre for Exercise, Nutrition & Health Sciences in the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol.
His advice: "Parents should be encouraged to work with their children to negotiate screen-time limits regardless of the type or location of the viewing."
One expert based in the United States wasn't surprised by the findings.
"Over the last decade we've seen a big increase in what had previously been a fairly stable amount of media exposure," said David Bickham, a research scientist in the Center on Media and Child Health at Children's Hospital Boston. "And that's because now it's not just the TV. It's in the pocket. So any moment a child has when his time isn't being occupied with something can default into media use. And that can be listening to music, talking on the phone, checking e-mail, going on Facebook."
The findings are published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.
Kids use more than one thing at a time
In the study, Jago's team worked with focus groups involving 63 British kids between the ages of 10 and 11. They found clear indications that among this age group, use of more than one form of media at a time has become persistent and routine.
The traditional child-distracter, television, remains a key part of the mix . But TV has been joined by a myriad of other technologies - cell phones, game players, MP3 players (such as iPods), laptops and iPads. Many kids use the TV as mere background while they fiddle away on these other gadgets, the team found.
Why? Many kids in the focus groups simply said that high-tech multi-tasking was fun. They said it also fills in any "downtime" occurring on other media, such as when video games are loading , TV commercials are on, or if the family has chosen what they consider a "boring" TV show.
Since many of the devices used are portable, kids are often roaming throughout the house while they switch from one source of media to the other, the researchers added.
And when is all this multi-tasking most likely to happen? Often in the window of time right after school and before dinner, the authors said.
Get kids away from media gadgets
Parents who are concerned about their kids' fixation with media gadgets need to negotiate some time away from them, Jago said. "Limiting screen-time during periods when it is easier for the children to do other things, such as physical activity in the after-school period, is likely to be key to these negotiation efforts," he suggested.
But Bickham, who is also an instructor of paediatrics at Harvard Medical School, said it's often tough to get a child to drop the screens and head for the greens.
"We also know from previous work that if you just shut off a kid's media devices they're not going to magically go out and double-dutch all day or play with Hula-Hoops and explore the sunny summer," he added. "It takes more than that. So if you really want to encourage outdoor play you have to help them reduce their media use and you also have to increase their means to go out and access outdoor play, by making sure they have friends to play with and making sure that there are organised activities that appeal to them. It takes some effort."
For more on children and media use, visit the American Academy of Pediatrics.
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