Sunday, January 24, 2010

How Much Do Our Children Consume?

So, there they were-two headlines in the same day's New York Times, Children Awake? Then They're Probably Online and Snack Time Never Ends. The first article discussed the unforeseen and surprising increase in the amount of time, nearly seven and a half hours a day not including texting and talking on phones, that children ages 8-18 spend on their electronic devices. Much of the analysis was contradictory pointing out on the one hand that many students still spend a significant amount of time exercising while other studies attempted to correlate a link between time on electronics and our nation's growing epidemic of obesity. Similarly mixed results reflected the ambiguous impact of time on screens on students' academic performance with some students doing well in school and others receiving low grades. At the end of the day, it seemed like the jury was still out on the effect of students averaging more time on line. However, the fact that this is a new reality was unequivocal. As Dr. Michael Rich, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital Boston and director of the Center of Media and Children's Health said, "it was time to stop arguing over whether it was good or bad and accept it as part of children's environment, 'like the air they breathe, the water they drink and the food they eat.'"

Turning to the Dining section on the same day, the above the fold headline and article discussed the proliferation of snacks in our children's lives starting in kindergarten. While some of the article focused on the role of snacks following young children's sporting activities, the point was very clear. More children are eating eating smaller amounts more frequently and consequently eating fewer traditional meals. (A good friend once explained to me that in youth soccer, "it's really all about the snacks.") Statistics cited in the article pointed out that "Between 1977 and 2002, the percent of the American population eating three or more snacks increased to 42 percent form 11 percent." Parents in the article bemoaned the omnipresence of food in their children's lives, and felt that their only recourse was to at least make sure that the snacks were healthy.

Reading these two articles from the same day brought on for me a variety of reactions. First of all, I wondered if in both cases it's the phenomenon of our children spending more time on line and snacking (one can in fact envision them typing on a lap top while eating a ho-ho--does anyone still eat ho-hos or ding dongs?) or is it what they're actually doing and eating. If Johnny is playing World of Warcraft at 2:00 AM while shoving Doritoes in his mouth, our antenna go up; if Susie is researching disaster relief efforts in third world countries at 5:00 PM while munching on carrot sticks, we're not quite so concerned.

Or does our concern arise because it's the decrease in the amount of face to face time that children are experiencing? Anthony's noshing all day means that he's not hungry for dinner when the whole family wants to sit down together, and research for years has shown the importance of families eating together for the physical and psychological well-being of adolescents. Melissa's running to her computer after school prevents her from being outside playing kickball or catching up with her buddies.

Is our concern stemming from both of these articles the fact that our children's lives are becoming more and more atomized? Is their actual thinking becoming more fragmented by their ingesting many, many more pieces of information, so, they have less time to digest what they have taken in? As they eat more and more snacks, do they lose the opportunity to appreciate a good and slow meal and the companionship that accompanies a conversation around the dinner table? Are these in fact two sides of the same coin?

Maybe the answer exists somewhere between on the one hand throwing up our hands in resignation and saying, "well, that's just the way it is," and on the other hand trying to deny our children all technology and food between meals. Possibly, the lesson here is to teach our children how to manage the ubiquitous technology and food in their lives and return to one of the first lessons we taught them, to always take things in right sized bytes.