NEW YORK — Let's face it: Teenagers spend hours texting, socializing on Facebook and playing video games. And it's driving their parents nuts. • Sure, there are real dangers associated with all this screen time — everything from cyberbullying to couch-potato obesity. Not to mention driving while texting, shortened attention spans and Internet porn.
But many of today's parents spent hours as kids sitting in front of screens, too — only they were television screens.
Which raises an interesting question: Is Facebook really worse for teenagers' brains than the mindless reruns of Gilligan's Island and The Brady Bunch that their parents consumed growing up?
Douglas Gentile, a child psychologist and associate professor at Iowa State University in Ames, who studies the effects of media on children, says texting, Facebook and video games are not inherently bad. Nor are they inherently better or worse than watching TV, although they do pose different risks, such as cyberbullying.
But research has shown that the more time kids spend in front of screens — whether it's TV or instant-messaging — the worse their school performance is. "That doesn't mean it's true for every kid, but it makes sense, that for every hour a kid is playing video games, it's an hour that they're not doing homework or reading or exploring or creating," he said.
Gentile calls this the "displacement hypothesis. If screen time is displacing doing their homework, that's bad. But if their homework is done, well, so what?"
Watching TV as a family, as mindless as that can be, is now regarded with nostalgia by parents. If your kid is sitting in the living room watching American Idol, you can plop on the sofa with them, and "it's a shared experience," Gentile said. But if they're texting or video-chatting with a school friend, "it's a private experience. It's like they're whispering secrets. And we find it rude."
The explosion in teen screen time is well-documented. A recent Associated Press-mtvU poll found that one-third of college students use computers, cell phones or gaming consoles for six or more hours daily. A Kaiser Family Foundation study published last January found that total media use among 8- to 18-year-olds, including TV, music, computers, video games, print and movies, has increased from six hours, 21 minutes daily in 2004 to seven hours, 38 minutes in 2009.
The Kaiser study also found that the more time kids spend with media, the lower their grades and levels of personal contentment are.
Gentile said screen time impact on school work can be mitigated by what he calls "protective factors." Those might include good teachers and a high-performing school, love of reading, coming from a family where education is valued, and exposure to experiences that are culturally and intellectually enriching. "If you had all these protective factors," said Gentile, "then that one little risk factor (screen time), who cares?"
He added that the amount of time kids spend watching TV has not declined precipitously with the popularity of computers and gaming, but "they don't pay nearly the attention (to TV) that they used to."
One thing parents should worry about, Gentile said, is the way electronic devices encourage multitasking.
"Multitasking is not really good for anyone," he said. "Your reflexes speed up, you're quicker to look over your shoulder and notice little noises or lights. This is not what they need when they get to the classroom and you're supposed to ignore the kid next to you. . . . The more distractions you have, the worse your performance is."
As long as they do their homework without texting between math problems, it's probably no worse than the hours you spent watching Star Trek.