The amount of time young people spend consuming media has ballooned with around-the-clock access and mobile devices that function practically as appendages, according to a new report.
Young people now devote an average of seven hours and 38 minutes to daily media use, or about 53 hours a week -- more than a full-time job -- according to Kaiser Family Foundation findings released today.
A few years ago, the same researchers thought that teens and tweens were consuming about as much media as humanly possible in the hours available. But somehow, young people have found a way to pack in even more.
But in the last five years, the time that America's 8- to 18-year-olds spend watching TV, playing video games and using a computer for entertainment has risen by one hour, 17 minutes a day, the Kaiser study found.
"What surprised me the most is the sheer amount of media content coming into their lives each day," said Kaiser's Vicky Rideout, who directed the study. "When you step back and look at the big picture, it's a little overwhelming."
The numbers zoom even higher if you consider kids' multi-tasking -- such as listening to music while on the computer. Those data show young people are marinating in media for what amounts to 10 hours, 45 minutes a day -- an increase of almost 2.25 hours since 2004.
The report, "Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-year-olds," is based on a survey of more than 2,000 students nationwide. It is the third wave of the nonprofit's ongoing look at children's media use, providing a glimpse at current viewing and listening patterns while also documenting changes from five and 10 years ago.
The huge increase since 2004 can be attributed to the transformation of the cellphone into a content delivery device, Rideout said.
"Kids are spending more time using their phone to play video games, watch TV and listen to music than to actually talk on them," she said.
And, of course, the last time Kaiser took the nation's temperature, social networking sites barely existed.
"The average day for me, if I am not at work, I will text all day or be on MySpace or Facebook," said Felinda Seymore, 17, of Waukegan, Ill. "That's my life."
On Sunday, for instance, she fiddled around online from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., updating her status and commenting on her friends' pages, she said.
"My mom thinks it's too much technology," Seymore said. "She says back in her day, they didn't have that stuff. I feel like it helps us open up and learn new things . . . instead of sitting around at home being bored."
Media consumption is even greater in minority families such as Seymore's -- a trend unaffected by a child's age, socioeconomic status or parents' education. African American and Latino youths favor TV over mobile devices, posting nearly six hours of tube time a day compared with 3.5 hours for their white counterparts.
Parents aren't helpless to limit the intake, the study found.
When parents impose limits, they work, with their offspring tallying nearly three hours less exposure a day. But only 30% impose some kind of parameters, the study found.
It's not easy playing electronic cop, but the stakes are too high, said Becky Kirsh, who has been known to pack up the remote controls and bring them with her to work.
With four kids, three computers and assorted cellphones, TVs and video games, Kirsh and her husband struggle to keep media from seeping into every corner of their Lombard, Ill., home.
"The bottom line is that this is my house," she said. "There's so much that is positive about old-fashioned family life . . . and I'm just not willing to give that up to technology."
She offered one example of how gadgetry can alter relationships with her four children, ages 9 to 15. In a simpler time, the car was an ideal place for heart-to-heart chats (captive audience, no eye contact).
But when her kids go right to their cellphones or immediately retreat into their headphones in the car, "it's no different than if they were in their bedrooms, with the door closed," said Kirsh, an educational coordinator at a local church. "That's when I really put my foot down."
Right now, the biggest tussle is with her 15-year-old son over texting -- a practice Kaiser didn't include separately in its count of media use but that parents often file in the same category. The Kirshes have responded by building in some restraints, including a limit of 2,500 texts and blocking any incoming messages from 7 to 9 p.m. (homework time) and after 11 p.m.
To most adults, a couple of thousand texts is tantamount to a blank check, but Joe Kirsh chafes under the allotment, saying it cramps his social life.
"When I run out of texts, I can't make plans," he said, adding that there is no way to access messages that arrive after hours and that he is the only one of his friends to have such restrictions. "I get good grades . . . so it's really not fair."
When it comes to report cards, the Kaiser report finds a difference between heavy and light media users, though researchers note that they haven't determined cause and effect. Nearly half of all heavy media users, those who consume more than 16 hours a day, including time spent multitasking, say they usually get "fair or poor" grades compared with about a quarter of light users, less than three hours.
Certainly, part of managing the media landscape means parents need to be savvy about a range of issues, including age-appropriate content and V-chips.
But it's not just about more government regulations and stronger locks, Rideout said.
Adults also need to look at their own behavior. Do they put a computer in every bedroom? Is the TV on during dinner? Are Mom and Dad tethered to their own BlackBerrys?
"Really, parents make choices about the media environment every day," Rideout said. "We hope these findings will allow them to look at what goes on in their own families . . . and talk about it."