Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The M Generation: Reading vs Electronic Media

I just read the executive summary of the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation study titled "Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year Olds." (They're calling this generation Generation M for all the time they spend with (electronic) media.) As a guy who writes books for children the report is sobering and, frankly, a little depressing. During school visits I sometimes have the feeling that I'm the representative for the whole book industry, trying to lobby for the paltry few minutes kids devote to reading—and I lobby with all I've got. From TVs playing in the back of the SUV or family van (forget about talking, reading, or singing campfire songs!) to kids in the second grade constantly text messaging each other, the world she is a changin'!

Are books holding their own against 300 TV channels, video game consoles, email, cell phones, text messages, digital cameras, computer games, the Internet, instant messaging, and downloading the latest must-have hit song for your iPod? Care to hazard a guess? More importantly, how is all this media exposure and multi-tasking changing American youths?
As the report asks: "What does this mean for the nature of childhood? or to interpersonal and familial connections?" Good questions.

First some interesting statistics (you might want to sit down): Young people today live media saturated lives and spend 6.5 hours a day with media, the equivalent of a full time job (44.5 hours a week). 24% of kids live in a home with more than 5 TVs and TVs are still the media seduction of choice with 8- to 18-year olds spending an average of 3 hours and 51 minutes a day watching TV. Kids in my target demographic (8- to 10-year olds) watch an average of 4 hours and 10 minutes a day. 20% of 8- to 18-year olds watch TV over 5 hours a day. 72% of boys and 64% of girls have thier own TV in their room. 63% of 8- to 18-year olds live in a house where TV is usually on during meals, while 53% live in homes with no rules about TV watching. Yikes!

Okay, so what useful statistics can be gleaned from the report regarding kids and reading? Here what the report has to say: "Some kids do read less than others. For example, those with TVs in their rooms, those in homes where the TV is left on all the time, and those whose parents don't have rules about TV watching all tend to spend less time reading than others do." (Reading, according to the report, includes books, magazines and newspapers not read for homework.) Kids who live in houses where the TV is on "most of the time" spend an average of 37 minutes a day reading while those who live in houses where the TV is on a "little" or "never" spend 55 minutes reading a day. Among 8- to 10-year olds, kids whose parents have rules about TV and enforce them "most" of the time spend 38 minutes less a day watching TV and 16 minutes more reading a day.

So what's a parent to do who's concerned about getting their children to read more? They might consider these strategies:
• Don't leave the TV on, especially when nobody is watching it (that makes a difference)
• Don't watch TV during meals
• Set rules about how much TV can be watched, and enforce them
• If it's not too late, don't put a TV in your child's room (once it's there, it will be extremely difficult to remove)

A few rules go a long way; as my sister-in-law told me the other day, she enforces a "no screen day" on Sundays and the kids end up spending a whole lot of time reading at her house on Sundays. That's pretty simple to do.

The 41-page report is well written, well designed and truly fascinating. You can read it for yourself here.

ALSO, I must thank the San Mateo Public Library for hosting my talk last night, and San Mateo's M is for Mystery bookstore for supplying the books. I met some really neat kids! I signed a lot of books! And everyone enjoyed some good belly LAUGHS!

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