Media-Saturated Kids

TV watching is up. No wait… it’s down. Internet use is up. Wait… no, mobile apps are more popular now. Teenagers spend more time social networking… no, wait… they spend more time gaming!

Which headlines do we believe?

In this week’s Youth Culture Window article, we’re going to take you on a quick tour through the typical tech-saturation-level of young people today. Then we’re going to highlight a few examples of media sources that aren’t reporting it the way it is.

A Week in the Life
This month Nielsen released a brand new report, the Cross Platform Report, tracking exactly how much time Americans are spending watching TV, mobile video, browsing the internet and watching internet video during the first quarter of 2011. This fascinating report wraps up much of the conjecture about how much time Americans of all ages are spending saturating media from these various technologies. Here’s a table from that report that gives you a glimpse of the “Week in the Life” of those various mediums for all ages:

A few observations I want to point out:


  • Traditional TV still rules, across the board. Our dad’s group (65+) watches the most TV (49 hours a week), significantly more than the average 12-17-year-old who watches 24 hours per week (a little over 3 hours per day).
  • The average young person doesn’t spend as much time online as you might think. The typical American teenager spends 1 hour and 45 minutes online per week, and another 20 minutes online watching video online (so just over 2 hours per week).

They also provided a similar table with monthly numbers:

I always find it interesting to compare these numbers with earlier numbers. For example, a few days earlier, Nielson released a summary of some of the data from the last quarter of 2010 and the first quarter of 2011. This summary was in a release they titled, Kids Today: How the Class of 2011 Engages with Media. A few facts they highlighted:


  • Are the Heaviest Mobile Video Viewers: On average, mobile subscribers ages 12-17 watched 7 hours 13 minutes of mobile video a month in Q4 2010, compared to 4 hours 20 minutes for the general population.
  • Out-Text All Other Age Groups: In Q1 2011, teens 13-17 sent an average of 3,364 mobile texts per month, more than doubling the rate of the next most active texting demo, 18-24 year olds (1,640 texts per month).
  • Talk Less on the Phone: Besides seniors 65-plus, teens talk the least on their phones, talking an average of 515 minutes per month in Q1 2011 versus more than 750 minutes among 18-24 year olds.
  • Grew Up in the Age of Social Media—and It Shows: While they make up just 7.4 percent of those using social networks, 78.7 percent of 12-17 year olds visited social networks or blogs.
  • Watch Less TV than the General Population: The average American watched 34 hours 39 minutes of TV per week in Q4 2010, a year-over-year increase of two minutes. Teens age 12-17 watch the least amount of TV on average (23 hours 41 minutes per week).
  • Spend Less Time on their Computers: American 18 year olds averaged 39 hours, 50 minutes online from their home computers, of which 5 hours, 26 minutes was spent streaming online video per month.

Remember, some of these numbers are from late 2010. I know these are a lot of numbers, but I think you’ll find the differences interesting. Compare some of those findings with the Quarter 1, 2011 tables above. A few observations I want to point out:


  • Note that 12-17-year-old Mobile Video Viewers are up in the 2011 tables, now averaging 8 hours and 40 minutes per month, from 7 hours and 13 minutes.
  • Note that even though 12-17-year olds watch less TV than the rest of the ages, their Traditional TV watching went up from 23 hours and 41 minutes per week in Q4 of 2010, to 24 hours and 21 minutes per week in Q1, 2011.
  • Then note that weird last bullet in the 2010 “Kids Today” summary. They note that an American 18-year-old spends 39 hours and 50 minutes monthly online. This is a particularly intriguing insight since the only numbers the tables provided are 12-17 and 18-24. This reveals that even though 12-17-year olds barely average 14 hours per month on the internet (add the “using internet” numbers and the “watching video on internet” numbers), 18-year-olds more than double that.

So, according to Nielsen, TV still dominates, and internet use ranges from just a few hours a week for younger ages, to over an hour per day for an 18-year-old.

But what about those articles and reports I’ve read that say different? I thought I recently read that TV watching was going down.

I can’t emphasize it enough. Read carefully! To put it nicely, many journalists are very misleading with their numbers (some are downright incorrect).

For example, this month Variety magazine posted this article with the headline, Class of ’11 is watching less TV. What does that sound like to you? Well, if you read the article, you’ll find that they are merely reporting what they found from the above Nielson “Kids Today” report. Variety simply argues that kids are watching less TV than their parents. This is true. Their headline was misleading. Especially for those of us that paid attention above and know that TV watching is actually up between 2010 and 2011.

Some media sources didn’t just infer. Media Daily News quoted Nielsen incorrectly in this article attempting to summarize the same “Kids Today” press release. They misread Nielson’s data, thinking that kids spent 23 hours and 41 minutes per week watching TV, but 39 hours and 50 minutes per week online. Their TV numbers are correct, but the Nielsen online numbers are actually “monthly” numbers.

The sloppy journalism gets worse. I’m not going to name names, but some other online sources actually linked the above Variety article saying, “Teens TV viewing has plummeted (to 23 hours and 17 minutes a week, which is nearly 50% less time than the average American spends with TV. What are they doing instead? Watching online and mobile video and texting their friends)”

This is what happens when journalists skim and then regurgitate what they think they saw. The above source would make it seem that teens spend less time watching TV (not true, TV watching is up), and spend more time watching online video and texting than watching TV (not true at all).

After seeing a number of media sources misquoting and misrepresenting Nielsen’s report, I (Jonathan) actually emailed Nielsen to clarify their numbers. Nielsen’s Alana Johnson, from their communications department contacted me and assured me that the “Kids Today” release about 18-year-olds spending 39 hours online was indeed a monthly number. The 23 hours was a weekly number. In other words… TV still rules in a big way. Kids are still watching a ton of American Idol, Glee, Jersey Shore, So You Think You Can Dance, and during the summer, Teen World and The Voice.

Do Nielsen’s Numbers Mesh?
I rarely question Nielsen. But it doesn’t hurt to ask, are Nielsen’s numbers outlandish compared to others?

Kaiser’s reputable M2 report, released in 2010, actually shows pretty close numbers (We wrote a 4-part Youth Culture Window series of articles on this report, our summary here). Kaiser’s survey found 8-18-year olds to average 4 hours and 29 minutes of TV per day, 1 hour and 29 minutes of computer per day, and 1 hour and 35 minutes of texting per day.

Kaiser’s TV and internet numbers are a little higher than Nielson’s, but not outlandish. And they seem to be proportional (TV dominates).

A variety of other surveys will pop up here and there, most of them not as large and comprehensive as Nielsen or Kaiser. Some of this casts some interesting insight. For example, mobile app analytics firm Flurry just released a new report contending that individuals in the U.S. are spending more time using mobile apps than the plain ol’ internet. Not only have smartphone and tablet (iPad, etc.) sales exceeded those of laptops and desktops, but according to their research, individuals are actually spending 7 more minutes a day on apps than on the traditional web. This has some interesting ramifications for Facebook specifically who is trying to run apps within its service. Basically, Facebook is getting on the “app” bandwagon.

Small surveys like this… well… you decide for yourself how much water they hold. For example, online gaming site Roiworld just posted the results of an online survey asking teens age 13-17 how much time they spend online. They reported an average of 2 hours per day. Think about this methodology for a second. An online gaming site asks online teens who will actually take the time to spend 15 minutes answering their questions, “How much time do you spend online each day?” Hmmmmmm.

Sometimes we really need to take time to read carefully and consider the source. 

So What!
What do all these numbers mean for parents and youth workers who care for young people today?

David R. Smith and I (Jonathan), the two guys who not only do all the research and writing of these weekly articles, but also hang out with kids regularly, have a few suggestions to help you connect with these media-saturated teenagers.


    1. Quietly observe to see if you have an opening. We’ve both been keeping our eyes on these media trends lately especially in our one-on-one time with students across the country. One thing we’ve been noticing with Christian students especially is the willingness to do a “media fast.”

      Two years ago, I (Jonathan) saw 75 young people at my church (including all three of my teenagers) do a one-month media fast before their missions trip on Spring break. Most the kids resisted the idea at first. Let’s be honest. Many of the parents resisted it! But after the fast, they embraced it! This past spring break the youth pastor at our church told kids to choose what they would fast from this year. The majority chose to do some sort of media fast again.

      What I (David) have noticed – for the first time – is students’ willingness to part with Facebook. Lately, I’ve seen more and more college students “fast Facebook” for Lent. I’ve seen young people take extended breaks from Facebook to see what their life is like without it. I’ve even seen college students drop the social networking site, altogether. This is a relatively new phenomenon, so we wondered if their attitude toward Facebook was an opportunity to connect with them more personally. We offered more small groups throughout the week, and our numbers increased significantly. I’ve tried to spend more one-on-one time with students than ever before, whether it was over lunch, on the campus, or on the golf course. In short, we observed a potential opening and seized upon it. We’re glad we did!


    1. Train your leaders how to engage teenagers in one-on-one relationships. At TheSource4YM, we see this as the core of effective youth ministries. The youth ministries making the biggest impact on teenagers aren’t always the ones with the biggest budget or most exciting and creative youth pastors. The common denominator is almost always caring, godly, sacrificial adults who are willing to invest in students’ lives. 


  1. Equip the parents in your church. has a sister site dedicated to parents: Here, you’ll find resources specifically tailored to parents who wrestle with the issues kids face. But that’s not all! Though we speak at camps, do training workshops, and conferences; one of the most fulfilling ministries for us is to host one of our parenting workshops. We love showing parents the “real world” their teens face every day, and then equip them with family-altering tools to help them engage their teens. These workshops have proven to be transformational for so many. Use a combination of these resources as often as you can to keep your parents informed and trained.

Let’s get something straight: Media isn’t necessarily the bad guy, and it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. But, neither is the family. So, do all that you can for teens who are crying out for connection so that they can have face time…in addition to Facebook.

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Jonathan McKee is the author of over twenty books including the brand new The Guy's Guide to Four Battles Every Young Man Must Face; The Teen’s Guide to Social Media & Mobile Devices; and the Amazon Best Seller - The Guy's Guide to God, Girls and the Phone in Your Pocket. He speaks to parents and leaders worldwide, all while providing free resources on and Jonathan and his wife Lori live in Northern California.