“Media multi-tasking” changing the amount and nature of young people’s media use

Bedrooms have become multi-media centers
Kids say parents don't set or enforce rules on media use


March 9, 2021
News Release
Kaiser Family Foundation

Washington, D.C. – Children and teens are spending an increasing amount of time using “new media” like computers, the Internet and video games, without cutting back on the time they spend with “old” media like TV, print and music, according to a new study released today by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Instead, because of the amount of time they spend using more than one medium at a time (for example, going online while watching TV), they’re managing to pack increasing amounts of media content into the same amount of time each day. The study, Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year-olds, examined media use among a nationally representative sample of more than 2,000 3rd through 12th graders who completed detailed questionnaires, including nearly 700 self-selected participants who also maintained seven-day media diaries.

The study - which measured recreational (non-school) use of TV and videos, music, video games, computers, movies, and print – found that the total amount of media content young people are exposed to each day has increased by more than an hour over the past five years (from 7:29 to 8:33), with most of the increase coming from video games (up from 0:26 to 0:49) and computers (up from 0:27 to 1:02, excluding school-work). However, because the media use diaries indicate that the amount of time young people spend “media multi-tasking” has increased from 16% to 26% of media time, the actual number of hours devoted to media use has remained steady, at just under 6 ½ hours a day (going from 6:19 to 6:21), or 44 ½ hours a week. For example, one in four (28%) youth say they “often” (10%) or “sometimes” (18%) go online while watching TV to do something related to the show they are watching. Anywhere from a quarter to a third of kids say they are using another media “most of the time” while watching TV (24%), reading (28%), listening to music (33%) or using a computer (33%).

“Kids are multi-tasking and consuming many different kinds of media all at once,” said Drew Altman, Ph.D., President and CEO of the Kaiser Family Foundation. “Multi-tasking is a growing phenomenon in media use and we don’t know whether it’s good or bad or both.”

Media in the bedroom. Children’s bedrooms have increasingly become multi-media centers, raising important issues about supervision and exposure to unlimited content. Two-thirds of all 8-18 year-olds have a TV in their room (68%), and half (49%) have a video game player there. Increasing numbers have a VCR or DVD player (up from 36% to 54%), cable or satellite TV (from 29% to 37%), computer (from 21% to 31%), and Internet access (from 10% to 20%) in their bedroom. Those with a TV in their room spend almost 1½ hours (1:27) more in a typical day watching TV than those without a set in their room. Outside of their bedrooms, in many young people’s homes the TV is a constant companion: nearly two-thirds (63%) say the TV is “usually” on during meals, and half (51%) say they live in homes where the TV is left on “most” or “all” of the time, whether anyone is watching it or not.

Parental rules. While prior studies indicate that parents have strong concerns about children’s exposure to media, about half (53%) of all 8-18 year olds say their families have no rules about TV watching. Forty-six percent say they do have rules, but just 20% say their rules are enforced “most” of the time. The study indicates that parents who impose rules and enforce them do influence the amount of time their children devote to media. Kids with TV rules that are enforced most of the time report two hours less (2:01) daily media exposure than those from homes without rules.

“These kids are spending the equivalent of a full-time work week using media, plus overtime,” said Vicky Rideout, M.A., a Kaiser Family Foundation Vice President who directed the study. “Anything that takes up that much space in their lives certainly deserves our full attention.”

The study was released today at a forum that included a keynote speech by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and a roundtable discussion featuring FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, Hip Hop artist Common, and top executives from the video game and television industries. The discussion was moderated by CNN’s Jeff Greenfield and a webcast will be available by 1:00 p.m. ET today.

Additional findings:
Time spent with media and other activities

  • On average, young people spend 3:51 a day watching TV and videos (3:04 watching TV, 0:14 watching prerecorded TV, and 0:32 watching videos/DVDs), 1:44 listening to music, 1:02 using computers (0:48 online, 0:14 offline), 0:49 playing video games, 0:43 reading, and 0:25 watching movies.
  • They also spend an average of 2:17 a day hanging out with parents, 1:25 in physical activity, and 1:00 pursuing hobbies or other activities. Seventh – 12th graders spend an average of 2:16 hanging out with friends, 0:53 talking on the phone, 0:50 doing homework, and 0:32 doing chores.
  • The study did not find a correlation between time spent watching TV and time spent exercising, playing sports, or engaged in other types of physical activity. There was no statistically significant difference in the amount of time light, moderate, or heavy TV viewers reported spending in physical activity (1:25, 1:21, and 1:34, respectively).

Computers and the Internet

  • Since 1999 there have been big changes in the percent of 8-18 year olds who have a computer at home (73% to 86%), have two or more computers at home (25% to 39%), have Internet access at home (47% to 74%), and go online for more than an hour in a typical day (5% to 22%).

The Digital Divide

  • A majority of young people from each of the major ethnic and socio-economic groups now has Internet access from home, but the divide between groups remains substantial. For example, 80% of White youth have Internet access at home, compared to 67% of Hispanics and 61% of African-Americans. Similarly, in a typical day 71% of children who go to school in higher income communities (>$50,000 a year) will use the Internet, compared to 57% of kids from middle ($35-50,000) and 54% of those from lower (<$35,000) income areas.

Reading and Education

  • Nearly three out of four (73%) 8-18 year-olds read for pleasure in a typical day, averaging 43 minutes a day. Some kids read more than others: those whose parents set and enforce rules about TV (0:16 more per day than those without rules), those without a TV in their bedroom (0:16 more), and those in homes where the TV is not left on most of the time whether anyone is watching or not (0:18 more).
  • Nearly one-third (30%) of young people say they either talk on the phone, instant message, watch TV, listen to music, or surf the Web for fun “most of the time” they’re doing homework.
  • Half (50%) of all young people say they have looked for health information online.
  • The study found no relationship between children’s reported grades and their use of TV or computers; but it did find that those who get the lowest grades (Cs and Ds or below) spend more time playing video games (0:21 more) and less time reading (0:17 less) than those with high grades (mostly As and Bs).

New media environment

  • As new technologies have become available, young people have been quick to make use of them, changing how they use media as well as which media they use. For example, 64% have downloaded music from the Internet; 48% have streamed a radio station through the Internet; 66% use instant messaging; 39% have a cell phone; a third (34%) say they have a DVR such as TiVo in their homes; 32% have created a personal Web site or Web page; 18% have an MP3 player; and 13% have a hand held device that connects to the Internet.
  • While the amount of time spent watching TV has remained steady since 1999, the type of TV has changed. In any given day, 69% of all 8-18 year-olds watch cable, while 49% watch broadcast, a nearly exact reversal of the situation in 1999, when 69% watched broadcast and 50% watched cable.


  • Most young people report being largely happy and well adjusted. But the 18% who are lowest on a scale of “contentedness” (i.e., are more likely to report being sad or unhappy, having few friends and getting into trouble a lot) spend more time using media than their most contented peers (9:44 v. 8:07 in total media exposure).


The study was designed and analyzed by staff at the Kaiser Family Foundation, in collaboration with researchers from Stanford University. Data collection, sampling and weighting were conducted by Harris Interactive®. The report is based on a survey conducted between October 2003 and March 2004 among a nationally representative sample of 2,032 youth aged 8-18 who were in 3rd through 12th grade. Each respondent completed a detailed self-administered questionnaire in school about their media use the prior day, and their media habits overall. Because older students were able to complete longer questionnaires, some questions were asked of 7th- to 12th-graders only. From the overall sample, a self-selected sample of 694 respondents agreed to complete seven-day media use diaries, which were primarily used to guide survey analyses, and calculate multi-tasking proportions. All results in this release are for the full sample of 8-18 year-olds, unless otherwise noted. The margin of error for the full sample is +/- 3.8%, higher for subgroups. Note that sampling error is only one of many potential sources of error in this or any other survey. The media covered in the study include TV (live and recorded), videos, movies, computers, the Internet, video games, books, magazines, newspapers, DVDs, radio, CDs, tapes, and MP3s. The study focuses exclusively on recreational (non-school or job-related) use of media. A more detailed description of the methodology can be found in the executive summary and full report, including a full copy of the questionnaire and a sample of the diary.

The executive summary of the study (#7250) and the full report on which it is based (#7251) are available on the Kaiser Family Foundation’s website at www.kff.org.

The Kaiser Family Foundation is a non-profit, private operating foundation dedicated to providing information and analysis on health care issues to policymakers, the media, the health care community, and the general public. The Foundation is not associated with Kaiser Permanente or Kaiser Industries.

For further information contact:
Rob Graham, 650-854-9400 or [email protected]
Sarah Williams Kingsley, 650-854-9400 or [email protected]