Recently the Kaiser Family Foundation published one of the biggest national surveys about media use (TV, movies, computers, video games, music, and books) in children and teens. The study found that youth take in an average of seven hours and 38 minutes of media a day. “The amount of time young people spend with media has grown to where it’s even more than a full-time work week,” says Drew Altman, president and CEO of the Kaiser Family Foundation. “When children are spending this much time doing anything, we need to understand how it’s affecting them–for good and bad.” This is the second in a series of blogs discussing some of the results of this comprehensive study.

While most of the results of this study are exactly what those who work with youth would expect, there were a few surprising results. One such finding was that media use does not seem to take away from the time youth spend doing other things. In fact, youth who report spending the most time in media also report spending the most time with friends, family, playing sports, and participating in other interests. For example, those who spend more than five hours a day watching TV report spending more time with their parents than those who report lighter TV use.

I have to admit that my rebellious teenaged self was a bit vindicated by this finding. As someone who came from a home that limited certain types of media because “you need time to do other things,” I receive great satisfaction in knowing I was right when I said I would still have time to do other things if I watched one more hour of TV. It doesn’t mean my parents were wrong to limit media or that I was right to be whiny, but it does give us the sense that increased media use does not necessarily diminish how well rounded children and teens are. Media use alone should not be our focus, but how media use can be molded, focused, and balanced in a faith supporting and uplifting way.

This finding suggests that much of the time children and youth are in front of the TV they are with their parents. This opens an important door for parents to talk with their children about what they see and hear in the media they consume. In those five hours of television there must be hundreds of opportunities for parents to talk about how our Christian faith intersects with the world around us. However, many parents are not taking advantage of this time together by searching for teachable moments.

I would hazard a guess that most parents feel ill equipped to have those types of meaningful conversations with their youth. Most parents I know simply don’t know where to begin. Only a few who have developed a system and a comfort level with asking questions like, “Do you and your friends use that kind of language when you are together?” or “What are some of the consequences to premarital sex/alcohol use/skipping school that the TV show isn’t showing us?”

Every ministry should be striving to find ways to equip parents to have these types of discussions every day. Parents have so much more time and opportunity to share God’s Word than youth leaders who see these youth once or twice a week. One of the things I’ve tried to do is to list examples of opportunities parents might encounter with their teens, then give ways they could start a conversation on the topic. I provide movie talk cards to help give them a jumping off point when they go out as a family to see a movie. When parents are together, I encourage well-equipped and confident parents to give examples of how they talk with their teens about faith in those teachable moments. As youth workers, one of the most powerful things we can do for our teens is teach parents how to teach the faith in everyday activities.

As an interesting side note, this survey does not seem to support the common accusation that increased media is to blame for the rising childhood obesity rate. There doesn’t appear to be any difference between heavy and light media users in the amount of time they spend in physical activity. While this study does not go into depth on this issue, it is worth nothing that an unhealthy lifestyle is a much more complicated issue than just media use. As a church we should support physical health as well as spiritual health, and we must be willing to look to broader issues (and a different blog post) when it comes to obesity.