Are your children alone in their rooms?

Posted: Monday, January 10, 2000

Our children spend as much time chowing down on media offerings as we adults spend working full time. The tally for American children 8 years old and older: 6 hours and 43 minutes a day.

Evidently, it's an entire career, watching TV or movies, listening to music, playing video games. And the King Kong remains TV. The average child, in a typical day, spends nearly three hours watching TV. One of six watches more than five hours a day.

Before you sing out, ``Kids! What's the matter with kids today?'' consider this: You, their parents, set them up to do exactly this. The typical American kid lives in a home with three televisions. Two-thirds of children 8 years old and older have a TV in their own room.

Don't assume we're talking about the average American and really meaning Richie Rich. Children in poorer neighborhoods are more likely to have a TV in their bedrooms than children in wealthier neighborhoods.

Computers have not become as important yet in children's lives as TV. The average American child spends about half an hour a day on a computer - including time at school.

Reading can't compete with TV, either, but it hasn't disappeared, thank goodness. In a typical week, a child spends more than 19 hours watching TV, more than 10 hours listening to music, more than five hours reading for pleasure, about two and a half hours using computers for fun and a little more than two hours playing video games. Most of children's reading for pleasure remains books.

Even so, the bedroom of the typical American kid is more media center than library. It's ``media central,'' according to the Kaiser Family Foundation report, ``Kids & Media - the New Millennium.'' Seventy percent of American children have a radio in their bedrooms, 64 percent a tape player, 53 percent a TV, 51 percent a CD player, 33 percent a video game, 29 percent a VCR and 16 percent a computer.

There's a piece to this that's only natural and a piece to this that's very dangerous.

Kids have always escaped adults by retreating to their rooms. Way back in the pre-microchip days, pre-teens and teens slunk away to read books or magazines, listen to their radio, play their record player, sulk. They left their rooms to curl in a corner around the telephone and gossip or complain about parents, then stalked back into their rooms, slamming their doors behind them.

It will ever be thus. The older kids get, the less they want to be around their parents, the more they seek peers. But parents must oppose this to some extent, must insist on their importance. And it seems parents aren't doing that.

So the dangerous piece of this is not that kids now have more avenues of escape - video games, cable TV, chat rooms, Instant Messenger, rented movies - but that they use them alone without supervision.

In the innocent days of innocuous TV, such as ``Gilligan's Island,'' or ``Rawhide,'' the family sat together around the one set, yukking it up, and parental interpretation and censorship were available. Today, porn and mayhem are constants, and the kids can watch it alone for hours on end. Among children older than 7, 95 percent almost never watch TV with their parents.

``Children, it's 6 p.m. Do you know where your parents are?'' Even the little ones are on their own. A third of children 2 to 7 years old have a TV in their bedrooms. They're spending more than three hours a day in front of a TV; during only three-quarters of one of those hours is a parent present, watching with them.

Half of the 3,000 children surveyed said there aren't any rules about what to watch on TV or how much. The TV is left on most of the day in 42 percent of children's homes. Among kids 8 and older, 65 percent say the TV is usually on during meals.

``Danger, danger, Will Robinson!'' Kids who use media the most have lower grades. Being unhappy at school and getting into trouble are associated with high media use. Children who use media the most are the least content (and that takes into account income, school, race, age, family composition). But then children need parents, not interactive games.

Children, whether they're 2 or 18, need adults guiding them, shaping them, encouraging them, restraining them, prodding them, curbing them, praising them, loving them. That cannot be done well when the TV is blaring during dinner time, when everyone retreats to his or her private TV or computer or CD player for the evening.

Families are not just a group of people who happen to be stuck in the same house for a certain number of years. Families are a place where love and attention are expressed and where, when there are children, there is structure.

There should be a hierarchy: Parents are in charge. There should be rules: no TV during meals, no TV on school nights, no access to R-rated movies, to X-rated Internet sites. There should be interaction: We converse during meals. You do your homework in the kitchen while I do the dishes.

There should be parenting, and televisions and computers can't do that; never could, never, ever will.

Claudia Smith Brinson is associate editor of The State in Columbia, S.C.

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