Thursday, January 21, 2010

Frittering in the Information Age

Do You Know Where Your Children Are? 
As reported in the New York Times, the Kaiser Family Foundation has published a study indicating that the average American child under eighteen years of age spends an amazing seven-and-a-half hours per day online or otherwise connected with media. This average time spent connected is up over an hour per day from the Kaiser Foundation’s previous study done four years ago. The researchers were quite surprised by their findings, apparently, because they had thought that the six-and-a-half hours of connected time reported in 2005 represented the apex of the trend.
Ten Hours or More
The present study doesn’t even take into account various hand-held media such as texting, cell-phone use, or laptops. Nor does it allow for the fact of multi-tasking. When both of these factors are considered, the researchers speculate that the average American youth is exposed to over ten hours of social and entertainment media per day.

Poor Mama
If my poor, sainted mother were alive today, this study would kill her. When my siblings and I were youngsters back in the dark times known as the fifties and the sixties, she waged her own personal war against that most despicable of all childhood activities. Yes, I am referring to frittering—her word, not mine—and I am here to testify that I am where I am today because I never frittered. Or more specifically, I never frittered in front of her.
This was a woman who would allow me one comic book a month. And then it had to be an Archie comic, or one of those classic comics such as Gulliver’s Travels or Robin Hood. Television was one hour per week, period, just long enough for either Bonanza or Disney, but not both.

And movies? If a movie had a G rating, and if it was showing at the drive-in, and if my parents had five dollars, all three of which were pretty big if’s, then we got to see a movie. To this day, every time I see Mary Poppins, it makes me want to climb into the back seat of a 1957 Ford, drink warm Kool-aid, munch cold, chewy homemade popcorn, breathe second-hand smoke, and watch one of my siblings get backhanded from the back the front seat. Talk about the good old days.
Frittering Takes Time
All of which brings us the long way around the barn and back to the Kaiser Foundation study. With children spending an average of seven-and-a-half hours per day connected, that means that some are spending much more. And even though the internet is the literal doorway to all the knowledge in the world, somehow I get the feeling that not all of this net time is being spent at the Library of Congress Rare Book site or over at the Discovery Channel website.

According to the Pew Research Center, the estimated 21 million American teens who regularly use the internet spend the majority of their online time sharing music and video files, on social networking sites, and with online gaming. Sounds like a whole lot of frittering going on, to me. You've sort of got to wonder where Mom and Dad are.

Bad News on the Horizon
As my mother always suspected, the trouble with frittering is that sooner or later, the piper must be paid. If kids are spending close to eight hours per day at the activity, that doesn't leave much time for anything else, such as education. Once you throw in another eight hours for sleep and some time to eat, bathe, and brush their teeth, the youngsters that are over on the right-hand side of the frittering bell-curve are already running out of time.

Trouble in River City
In 2009, the National Center for Educational Statistics found that American high school students came in a mediocre 34th in math literacy when compared to students in other nations. They came in an equally sobering 28th in science literacy when compared to the same group. What’s happening? I don't claim to know the full answer, but I know what Mama might have said.  She'd say that the young folks today are frittering away our future. Frittering. Which rhymes with Twittering.  And as those of you who recall The Music Man might remember, that stands for trouble in River City.


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  2. Ray - It's funny the day you wrote this I got an e-mail from my mother. She is reading a book called "Daily Insights" by Zig Ziglar and on that particular day it talked about the term "continuous partial attention." That's basically a way to describe the constant distraction of e-mail, IMs, cell phones, etc...

    I suppose I should preface this by saying that my wife and I are at her house just about every weekend. Michelle (my wife) usually sits on the sofa and types away on her iPhone; I usually watch football but I also have my laptop sitting next to me so I can tweet about games and follow others on It drives my mother crazy. She says it's impossible to carry on conversations with her; she likens it to having people around that are sort of half-there.

    I completely understand where she's coming from though. For years, I walked around campus watching students mill about with cell phones attached to their ears - I mean LITERALLY - attached to their ears. I always wondered what was so damn important; they were carrying on better conversations with others on the phone than with the very people around them. Made no sense to me... It left some mark on my brain because to this day I still refuse to carry a cell phone.

    BUT I have learned to embrace Facebook and Twitter and figured out the many ways that they are a fun and powerful compliment to my everyday life. And through this, I have learned that what you call "frittering;" what my mother calls "distractions" is in actuality the way this young generation (and quickly moving into others) goes about communication. Of course, it doesn't stop with personal communication - it bleeds into virtually EVERYTHING and ANYTHING a person is interested in and/or associated with: work, school, church, sports teams, movies, tv, my bank account, ordering pizza, setting the DVR,.. Whatever it is, I am sure they have an app for it.

    Frittering,... Hmmm, I'd say yes if it was relegated to nothing more than sitting on the sofa and playing video games. THAT is frittering (and I've done my fair share of that). Young people (oh those young people), and to some degree myself would say that we are just keeping in better touch with the things that are most important to us. You better watch out, you keep writing like that and I might start confusing you as some old guy... ;)

    I'm off to my mother's house to watch the Conference Championship games; I'll be on Twitter.

    Rock on, Ray. Rock on.

  3. As a former teacher, and concerned citizen, studies such as those cited in this article always worry me. I believe parents need to monitor their children more closely and limit them “frittering” their time away on their cell phone, computer, or television. However, there may not be as much “frittering” as we think.

    I have read that computer games that may seem useless do, in fact, teach problem solving skills, hand/eye coordination, visual cognition, and/or other skills we may not even realize. Emailing and texting requires some writing skills, although spelling and proper grammar don’t factor into it at all. Perhaps all the time today’s young people spend on the computer and using cell phones isn’t completely wasted.

    My 13-year-old sister is certainly more computer and technologically savvy than I am. She’s also a quick typist and can figure out any new cell phone app and video game in minutes. The test scores for math and science are dismal and I agree that children need to spend more time with homework and concentrating on school. I don’t, however, think the future is doomed. Our young people may be learning more than we know.

  4. "I have read that computer games that may seem useless do, in fact, teach problem solving skills, hand/eye coordination"

    When my wife complains about me playing Xbox too long I tell her I'm not playing games but working on my hand-eye coordination skills. (Let me tell you, I have some pretty wicked coordination skills).

  5. At this moment, I have 20-25 browser tabs open for research (most of them are blogs). In another window I have some readings for another class that I'm working my way through. There's also Hulu open, in case I need a break and want to watch a tv show online. I have three notepad files open for keeping notes of all the information pouring in. At 2:00, the browser tabs will still be open, but I'll also be launching World of Warcraft and another window to quickly peruse twitter, forums, and news updates. My cell phone is on my desk for when my roommate is done with class or my mother calls, in which case I'll have to mute ventrilo where I'm listening/talking to 10-25 other people while working on my problem solving skills, hand/eye coordination, and oh boy, am I good that. While waiting on the queue in-game, I'll be continuing my research, feeding the cat, making lunch for myself, and probably doing the dishes. I can hear the "ding" of the queue popping up while I'm in the other room, and of course, all of my tabs are waiting here for me. Oh, I'm also running updates in the background and I'll let my virus scan run while I drive over to the University to pick up Travis.

    Is your head spinning yet? Mine isn't. In fact, my mind is quite content in the information overload. It's sorting out the details in the back while I work on something else. After running on hyper-drive for so many years, my brain finds the sensation to be comforting - sort of like melting into a pool, except I'm swimming in information instead of chlorinated water.

  6. I think Denae hit the nail on the head. This is, for the most part, a generational issue that those of us who are say, approaching or past middle age, simply do not see in the same light as today's youth. I remember when AOL instant messaging was popular among teenagers several years ago, before the advent of myspace, facebook and twitter. I had two kids who would have dozens of IM boxes open chatting with people and they were able to keep up with each conversation. It boggled my mind. However, I am not sure that the amount of time they are spending on media today is a complete waste of time. It's simply the way they interact with the world around them. It's not necessarily wrong, just different from what we did at their age because those tools were not available to us. And, I believe that in the long run, this use of technology will prove to be beneficial to the next generation. As the readings in this class illustrate, social media is already changing job structures and affecting the way businesses work. To be successful in any career, I think people will have to be savvy in all forms of technology.

  7. Ray, you might be interested in reading about the "unitasking" movement. Here's a link:

    As a self-employed Gen-Y lady, I've had to start unitasking myself. Otherwise, I would be so overloaded with information every day that I wouldn't be able to get any work done or bill any hours. These days, when I need to get down to business, I close email, Twitter and Facebook, put the Word Document on "full screen" so no distractions can creep in, and get to work. Otherwise, I get waaaay too distracted.