Students Tap Mobile Tech. for Increased Media Use

By Michelle R. Davis — January 26, 2010 4 min read

Young people are using new technologies to significantly increase access to television, the Internet, and music, spending more time with digital media than almost any other activity in their lives, but such heavy use could be having a negative impact on their school performance, a study released last week concludes.

Americans ages 8 to 18 devote an average of seven hours and 38 minutes a day to using media for recreational activities, or more than 53 hours a week. That’s an hour and 17 minutes more than in 2004, the last time the comprehensive study was done by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit research organization based in Menlo Park, Calif.

In addition, students are increasingly multitasking, using several different types of technology at the same time to access media. That means they actually pack in 10 hours and 45 minutes a day of media content into the more than seven hours, according to the report.

The study found that mobile technologies such as cellphones and iPods are the main cause of the increase in time spent with digital media, said Victoria J. Rideout, a vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation and the director of its program for the study of media and health. Over the past five years, the proportion of 8- to 18-year-olds who own their own cellphones has grown from about 39 percent to 66 percent, the study found. Ownership of iPods and MP3 players went from 18 percent to 76 percent.

“There’s been a huge explosion in mobile media,” said Ms. Rideout, the lead author of the study. She noted that such devices now offer more than just the ability to talk; they sport features enabling the user, for example, to listen to music or video, play games, or access the Web. Students can access media in cars, at school, on the bus, and in many other places.

Impact on Learning

A downside of this increasing use of digital media is that it may have a negative impact on how students are doing in school, the study found.

The study’s survey of more than 2,000 young people from across the country divided them into heavy, moderate, and light users of media. Heavy users consumed more than 16 hours of media content for recreation in a typical day and reported lower grades than the light media users.

Survey Says

A new study by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation measures recreational media use by 8- to 18-year olds in the United States. The study found:

• Students devote an average of seven hours and 38 minutes to using entertainment media every day, an increase of one hour and 17 minutes from 2004.

• Mobile technology is driving this increased consumption of media. Over the past five years, the percentage of students owning cellphones jumped from 39 percent to 66 percent. The share of students who own iPods or MP3 players rose from 18 percent to 76 percent.

• Students are using technology to multitask when it comes to their media consumption. The study found that students actually pack 10 hours and 45 minutes worth of media content into the seven hours and 38 minutes they spend using entertainment media.

• About half of students classified as heavy media users reported they got fair or poor grades, compared with about a quarter of light users.

Forty-seven percent of heavy media users said they got fair or poor grades, compared with 23 percent of light users. Heavy media users also reported they got into trouble a lot, and were often unhappy or bored.

Though Ms. Rideout cautioned that the study could not establish a definitive cause-and-effect relationship between media use and grades, the researchers found that the relationship between media exposure and grades, as well as personal contentment, withstood controls factored in for other, possibly relevant factors such as age, gender, race, and single vs. two-parent households.

“There are a lot of media messages coming into their brains every day, and anything that takes up this much time is something we should look at,” Ms. Rideout said.

Contrary to a widespread public perception, the study also found that the heaviest media users reported spending similar amounts of time exercising or being as physically active as those who were not heavy users.

Ann Flynn, the director of education technology for the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association, said the study’s information regarding grades raises a red flag for educators.

“These are young people who are very much accustomed to being connected and getting information in a digital format,” she said. “Then they go to school, and they find that the majority of their current school environment is not connected.”

Those students may be bored or uninspired because of the disparity between the technology they use outside of school to access media and the lack of it in their daily education, added Yong Zhao, the founding director of the Center for Teaching and Learning based at Michigan State University.

He said schools need to think about how to tap students’ enthusiasm for technology used to access media and apply that to education.

“School may be too boring for them,” Mr. Zhao said. “Schools do not present their content in an engaging way, as media does.”

Texting During Homework

About half the respondents said they access media either most or some of the time—for recreational purposes—while they’re doing their homework. That may mean they’re listening to the radio, watching TV, or texting while doing work for school.

Some observers say such multitasking is an important skill to learn in today’s world. The ability to focus on a task with other things going on in the background is a skill that will serve students well in higher education and the workplace, Ms. Flynn said.

Ms. Rideout of Kaiser, though, cited a growing body of research showing that when multitasking, each task tends to suffer.

But she also suggested that the study proves that technology and media has captured young people’s attention in a way that schools should try to tap.

“We want to look at whether we’re maximizing the media potential of all these platforms,” she said. “Kids love media, but the vast majority of their media use is not related to learning. If we can shift that, it’s all the better.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 27, 2010 edition of Education Week as Students Tap Mobile Tech. for Increased Media Use

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