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Television

Kaiser Kids and Internet Report

Cover from KFF Report

A new study from the Kaiser Family Foundation confirms what most parents already know: that our kids are literally tethered to the Internet or other means of consuming media the better part of the day.

The report, which has been the talk of the blogosphere since it was released yesterday, found that children and young adults aged 8 to 18 spend more than seven and a half hours a day on their computers, in front of a television, or accessing media on a smart phone or mobile device.

That number doesn’t include talking or texting on a cell phone (another two hours a day). And if you calculate in multitasking – i.e., surfing the web while listening to music – the amount of media content taken in comes to nearly 11 hours total per day.

The shocking part is that when the same study was conducted five years ago, its authors concluded that media use could not possibly grow further from the six and a half hours clocked in 2004.

Donald Roberts, one of the researchers and a professor at Stanford University told The New York Times that “I remember writing a paragraph saying we’ve hit a ceiling on media use, since there just aren’t enough hours in the day to increase the time.”

Roberts and crew were apparently wrong.

The study’s results come as no surprise to my wife and I. All three of our children have their own computers, which are constantly on even while “studying.” The older two also have an iPhone and iPod Touch and know where all the open WiFi hotspots are in town. If they have a long bus ride, they load up the latest episodes of How I Met Your Mother or Dexter before leaving in the morning.

While the amount of time teenagers spend online or watching TV or movies is surprisingly high, it’s not like we didn’t do the same when we were younger – at least as much as we could with the technology of the times. I distinctly remember my parents complaining that I couldn’t possibly study properly with music or the TV on. But my grades came out fine.

That’s not necessarily the case today, though. The grades of 47 percent of the heaviest media users in the report were C or lower. Those heavy media users were also more likely to report that they were bored or sad, that they got into trouble, didn’t get along well with their parents, or were not happy at school.

A number of years ago – before the advent of all the latest hi-tech toys – our kids had become hopelessly addicted to the tube. We took the radical step of going “cold turkey” and forbidding television entirely. The kids were mortified at first, but tell us today that it was one of the best things we did as parents.

But their TV watching is now just as high – if not higher – than when we first detoxed; it’s simply not in the living room anymore. We have thought about taking their laptops away, but the kids have moaned that they need them for schoolwork – which is true.

And then there is the role model of their parents. Both my wife and I are in front of our respective computers constantly. And we multitask too. I am constantly flitting between Firefox, to Word for an article I’m writing, to splicing in a few stolen minutes of The Office or Flash Forward – all the while listening to Internet radio or some of the 100 GB of music on our shared home server.

So how can we criticize our children when their parents are equally guilty? The one thing that ruffles a teenager’s feathers more than anything else is perceived hypocrisy.

And there have been certain benefits to the always-on society we’ve created. When my son was visiting Poland with his high school class, he found a WiFi connection at the Auschwitz concentration camp and Skyped me from there, bringing me into his experience without paying a penny.

Ultimately, there’s no turning back. Our kids aren’t going to unplug and this is probably just an interim stage on the way to even more insidious connectivity. Someday, we’ll probably be able to pipe the Internet directly into our brains.

Indeed, that future may not be so far off. An Australian company is already working on an interface to bring sight to the blind by implanting a chip that bypasses the optical nerve. It’s just a hop skip and a jump to an entirely wireless mind (can you say Cylon?)

What are we going to do then? Threaten to remove their batteries? If Apple has anything to do with it, the power supply will be hard wired in – like all of Apple’s iPod products. Need a new chip? Just replace your head.

Some more findings from the Kaiser study:

  • 76% of 8 to 18-year-olds have MP3 players (up from 18% in 2004).
  • 64% say the TV is usually on during meals and 45% say the TV is left on “most of the time” even if no one is watching.
  • 71% have a TV in their bedroom; 50% have a console video game player
  • The amount of time spent watching regularly scheduled TV declined by 25 minutes a day from 2004. But factoring in TV on the web and cell phones, total TV consumption increased from 3:51 hours to 4:29 hours a day.
  • 74% say they have a profile on a social networking site.
  • About half of young people say they use media either “most” (31%) or “some” (25%) of the time while they’re doing their homework
  • Respondents to the survey spend an average of 1:35 hours a day sending or receiving texts.
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Television_remote_controlInteractive video has been one of my passions since I worked as a “multimedia producer” in the early 1990s creating CD-ROM titles in edutainment and healthcare. In 1994, I led a team that produced “How Multimedia Computers Work,” an immersive interactive environment that plunged viewers into a virtual 3D computer. We followed that up with “How Your Body Works.” Both were co-published in a book-CD package by Ziff-Davis Press.

In recent years, interactive video has been used very effectively for advertising and marketing. Carnival Cruise Lines employed it to help bring a cruise ship alive for would-be (and high-paying) passengers. Mars created an entire mini-commercial called “Get the Girl…An Interactive Love Story (Sort Of)” for its Twix brand where the viewer gets to choose what happens next. Even The New York Times got into the act with an interactive David Pogue sharing insights on consumer electronics.

But the Holy Grail for we interactive pioneers was always marrying it with broadcast television. It was the late 1980s, though, and technology never kept up with our creativity. Now, though, with the advent of social media, that day may have arrived. But with what consequences?

I wrote in my earlier post about Jeff Pulver’s “140 Characters Conference” which paraded a veritable cavalcade of social media luminaries on stage to talk about all things Twitter and Facebook. One of the panels at the event was on “social TV.”

Veteran Israeli media consultant Dror Gill described how TV and Twitter are already mashing up. A growing community of users are tweeting while they watch the tube, he explained, sending their comments, theories and criticisms into the social ether for others who are following the same program at the same time to reply to or re-tweet.

Gill called this phenomena 2-screen interactive TV (there are cable operators that have already integrated similar social media tricks into a single screen).

The experience, Gill explained, in some ways recreates a bit of what was for me an integral part of my childhood: sitting together as a family, laughing at dead parrots and silly walks, or cringing at another one of Mary Tyler Moore’s insecure faux-pas’s.

These days, it’s rare for members of a family to even find time to eat dinner as a cohesive unit. Twittering together, apparently, is the next best thing…even if your fellow schmoozers are on opposite coasts (or even different continents).

Conference host Pulver related his own social TV experience. A big fan of the NBC show Heroes, one evening, Pulver found himself away from the TV trolling the aisles for canned corn or some other delicacy in his local supermarket.

Distraught over missing his favorite guilty pleasure, he pulled out his cell phone and was able to follow the show by scrolling through the real-time tweets that neatly summarized the main plot turns.

How Pulver got his shopping done I don’t know…I also have to wonder why the one time founder of VoIP giant Vonage didn’t just TiVo the show, or at least watch it later on Hulu. But that wouldn’t have made for such an illustrative story.

Despite the fact that a number of the participants at the conference praised social media for making the post-modern world a little less lonely, the entire experience seems to me to be exactly the opposite. Where once we gathered in a shared space, we now sit alone opposite our 42-inch plasma screens tapping away to strangers thousands of miles away.

But for advertisers, this real time web can perhaps be seen as a hopeful trend. Broadcast television has been inching inexorably towards time shifting. The number of viewers watching a show at the hour it’s actually aired has been steadily declining in an online world where you can instantly stream that same program on any number of sites or – heaven forbid – download it for free.

The social media interactive experience, by contrast, requires participants to watch live. Tape delay ruins the whole thing. Moreover, not only can’t live viewers fast forward through the commercials, TV Twitterers may be less likely to jump up at a commercial at all. With all the real time excitement, a social media conversation may actually evolve about the ad itself. That puts the onus on the advertiser to make sure that what they’ve created can withstand the withering comments of a live Twitterverse.

The game for advertisers, as a result, gets even more complicated than it already is in a globally connected world. Companies must make sure they have assigned a staff person to monitor Twitter and other social media channels whenever their ads play in primetime. Because, when the masses won’t put down their keyboards even during the once sacred passive TV experience, the necessity to remain vigilant, to jump to attention and enact damage control if the need arises, becomes an integral part of the job.

It’s been said before by techno-luminaries far more prolific than me, but social media can no longer be seen as a “nice to have.” This makes it at once both terrifying and a terrific opportunity. But it’s one that must not be ignored.

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