Sarah-Kate Salmon, 17, readily admits she spends a large part of her day attached to her cellphone – yet she’s terrified of talking on it.
“I’m texting from 8 a.m. until 12 a.m.,” the grade 12 student at Miles Macdonell Collegiate said. “I could text someone, ‘I’m madly in love with you,’ but I can’t talk on the phone. It’s awkward.”
While Salmon likes to tune into her favourite TV shows and uses Facebook to procrastinate from homework, not all of her media exposure has been positive.
On her 15th birthday, Salmon was the victim of a physical attack by a group of teens – one girl and three boys – that put her in the hospital with a concussion.
“She kind of just kicked my head until I bled out my ear,” Salmon recalled.
After a friend told her a video of the attack had been posted on YouTube, she was forced to deal with the horror again.
“I thought, ‘What if this gets around?’ Then it just struck up the fear of it happening again. The situation just kept replaying in my head,” Salmon said.
It’s this complicated relationship between teenagers and the media that a new study from Washington, D.C.’s Kaiser Family Foundation called “Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8-18-Year-Olds” focuses on.
Reporting increased levels of entertainment media usage, with an average of just over seven hours daily, the study has found a correlation between low levels of personal contentment and heavy users of media. Twenty-one per cent of teenagers are identified as heavy users, meaning they consume upwards of 16 hours of media per day.
Taking into account variables such as age, race, parent education and single- vs. two-parent households, contentment is measured by how the participant responds to questions like whether they often feel sad, get into trouble, are bored, get good grades and if they have a lot of friends.
According to Michael Zwaagstra, a research associate of Manitoba’s Frontier Centre for Public Policy and a high school teacher with the Hanover School Division in Steinbach, the study’s findings prove what he has seen for years.
“Time spent playing video games isn’t time spent socializing,” he says. “When you ask students, ‘How do you feel after you’ve spent all night playing games?’ The universal response is, ‘I feel terrible. I feel like I’ve accomplished nothing.’”
Zwaagstra advocates for more time spent on the fundamental skills of reading and writing in the earlier years in place of technologically-focused classrooms.
“We seem to be jumping from the latest gadgets instead of focusing on the basics,” he says. “If you have someone that already struggles with making friends, it makes it that much easier to avoid social interaction.”
Brad Stelmach, a guidance counsellor and psychology teacher at Miles Macdonell, sees the impact of social media in his office daily.
“Kids will come in to be counselled and be crying, in distress. But their cellphone will buzz and they’ll answer it right away,” he says.
After helping students deal with the effects that Facebook statuses and text messages have on friendships, romantic relationships and bullying, Stelmach acknowledges that each individual has different predispositions and thresholds for media addiction.
“Technology is a great thing when it’s used in the appropriate way,” he said. “Sure there’s going to be a correlation [between heavy media use and discontentment], but is it going to impact everyone the same? No.”
Published in Volume 64, Number 21 of The Uniter (March 4, 2010)