Teens use media 8 hours a day: thanks, Dr. Obvious

The media aren't the problem here, folks. Kids can not only handle rivers of information but actually enjoy being immersed in them. Being hyper-connected doesn't stress them out like it does so many adults; it's just the way it is.

Seriously? This is a big shocker to everyone? Kids are using the Internet and their smartphones everywhere except for school, according to research funded by the Kaiser Family Foundation. While parents and doctors are wringing their hands wondering about the implications of all this media exposure that, for some reason (apparently they haven't actually interacted with any kids in the last year or two), nobody expected, I'm wondering why school is the one place where these tools are absent.

According to Donald F. Roberts, a Stanford communications professor emeritus, "This is a stunner." With only a small amount of disrespect meant to Dr. Roberts, it's a stunner because he's old. Not only can I not manage to get myself fussed over the findings, I take exception with many of the implications of the research. The New York Times provided (albeit in a tiny paragraph buried amid lots of worrying) a more progressive perspective:

Dr. Michael Rich, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Boston who directs the Center on Media and Child Health, said that with media use so ubiquitous, it was time to stop arguing over whether it was good or bad and accept it as part of children’s environment, “like the air they breathe, the water they drink and the food they eat.”

As the researchers went on to site potentially troubling school performance among heavy media users ("While most of the young people in the study got good grades, 47 percent of the heaviest media users — those who consumed at least 16 hours a day — had mostly C’s or lower"), two thoughts occurred to me. First, assuming rampant grade inflation isn't plaguing our schools, by definition, half of our students should have C's or lower. A C indicates average performance. Apparently these kids must be doing something right to be able to sleep on the order of 2 hours a day and still pull C's (assuming 6-hour school days). Heck, by that logic, 53% of the kids who spend all their time plugged in are getting above-average grades!

The second thought relates to Dr. Rich's comment. If media are like air to a new generation of even more hyper-connected Digital Natives, then aren't we actually suffocating them by placing them in school environments where such media are largely banned? No phones, no music, no YouTube, no messaging, no communication. Sound about like the policy at your school?

It's no wonder then, that kids in the study complained of boredom when isolated from a fast-paced, media-rich, multi-tasking environment. If kids are bored, what are the chances that they are learning? What are the chances that they're challenged and engaged in some meaningful way? And what are the chances they will be isolated and prevented from communicating through a variety of media when they hit the job market? IBM, after all, just announced its "Project Vulcan," designed to enhance business communication and collaboration by "integrating public and private collaboration and social communities into an extensible set of user interfaces."

As little as 5 years ago, perhaps changes in media consumption were worth some extra thought, if not outright concern. Today, it just is. It's time to set aside the out-of-context statistics and follow the models of our most progressive schools who have embraced media and social communications to allow kids to learn with and through each other. The media aren't the problem. It's our outdated thoughts about kids' capacities to process, use, and enjoy the massive streams of data they access.