Sixteen-year-old Arnold James has a hard time picturing life without his cell phone.
"It would probably be like drug addicts feel when they're getting off of drugs," says the Wilde Lake High School student, who often uses his phone during school hours. "Sometimes your cell phone is a relief from the busy-ness at school and all the assignments."
American youngsters such as James are now using cell phones, iPods and other electronic devices for an average of 7 1/2 hours daily - more than the equivalent of a full day of school, according to a recent national study tracking entertainment media habits.
The Kaiser Family Foundation study found that children spend so much time multi-tasking - texting, sending and reading e-mail, watching videos and playing video games - that they actually pack nearly 11 hours of activity into 7 1/2 hours.
The Kaiser findings speak volumes about how accessible and widespread electronic gadgets are among young people, and how, often in the absence of strict parental supervision, they're redefining modes of youths' communication, interaction and entertainment.
At 53 hours weekly, youngsters are now spending more time using electronic media than their parents spend in a full workweek.
"When children are spending this much time doing anything, we need to understand how it's affecting them - for good and bad," said Drew Altman, president and CEO of the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Not surprisingly, many local youngsters' usage increased last week, when back-to-back heavy snowstorms canceled schools, closed roads and caused many to stay indoors longer than usual.
"Some days it was snowing too hard, or snow boots were still wet from the day before; we all were couch potatoes or glued to computer screens," said Melinda Babiak of Nottingham, Maryland. She added that even without the cabin fever brought on by snow, her children - ages 14, 6 and 2 - are frequent users.
"Our oldest has an iPod, which is always playing music, accessing Facebook or used for games," Babiak said. "Our 6-year-old is an early riser, so instead of waking everyone else, he huddles under the covers and plays his Nintendo DS till it's time to get ready for school. Even the 2-year old has a LeapPad Learning System that, while educational, is electronic."
Jill Silverman of Pikesville, Maryland, said that her sons David, 10, and Aidan, 7, use her computer (with parental controls) and have no cell phones. As for their friends, she says, that's another story.
"I personally think [kids owning cell phones] at age 10, that's absurd," said Silverman. "Last year we had a sleepover party, and some of the mothers gave their kids their cell phones. I said, 'We have a land line,' and they said, 'Oh no, I'll just leave him my cell phone.' I thought it was ridiculous."
Dr. Darcy Thompson, assistant professor of pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, said youngsters are watching more electronic media partly because it's more available and more entertaining.
"Television viewing that used to be sitting in the living room with one TV in a household where you actually had to get up and change the channels is now dramatically different," said Thompson. "It's in the home, it's carried in the back pocket, it's carried on the computer, it's everywhere, and music is now in many different shapes and forms, where you can take it anywhere."
The Kaiser study says that over the past five years cell phone ownership among 8- to 18-year-olds has increased from 39 percent to 66 percent, while iPod and MP3 player ownership has increased from 18 percent to 76 percent.
A similar study, conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project in 2008, showed that cell phone ownership among youngsters ages 12-17 increased from 45 percent in 2004 to 71 percent in 2008.
Youngsters now spend 49 minutes daily listening to music, playing games and watching TV on their cell phones, compared with 33 minutes spent talking on them.
Jack Taylor, 18, of Arbutus, Maryland, said that he exchanges about 20 text messages back and forth daily with a few friends. "It's easier than going through a phone book and calling. If you know a few numbers, you just text somebody real quick, or if you're at work, you can do it under the table, all inconspicuous."
Thompson of Johns Hopkins added that few parents are setting strict limits on media use. She said that in general, parents would be surprised if they calculated how much media their children are using.
And the Kaiser study supports her claim. Only about 30 percent of youths say that their parents set rules on how much time they may spend using electronic media, according to the study. Youngsters whose parents do set limits spend about three hours less daily using such devices.
"It's something that in the busy lives of most people these days, not much time or thought is put into the hours that are spent with the screen," said Thompson. "And content has become much more interesting than it used to be. For that reason as well, kids are very attracted to the content."
Silverman said her children are allowed to play with the devices after they've done their homework; if grades drop, usage is discontinued until the grades improve.
"And you see an immediate turnaround," she said. After they finish homework, her sons play electronic games until bedtime, and "if we don't make Aidan turn his off he'll be there in bed until 11 with his Playstation portable."
Babiak said that when her children's grades slip or when they fail to adhere to rules, "iPods, gaming systems and television are the first things taken away." Still, she said that it's not surprising that kids often use such devices outside the home.
"Our oldest comes home from school and heads straight for the computer; that's where she finds her homework assignments and research tools," she said. "One teacher even gives extra credit if homework is typed, printed and includes a relevant picture."
Thompson said that parents often do not give themselves credit for being able to curb their children's electronic media habits.
"The first step is being aware and evaluating your child's situation," said Thompson. She tells parents to forbid their children from having televisions in their bedrooms, saying that it leads to more viewing.
"Be aware of the content," she said. "A lot of parents think of violence and sexual behaviors, and they think they need to limit exposure to those two things. However, there are many different types of messages through the television, about food, about self-image, about norms of behavior that I don't think are thought of on any kind of basis by parents.
"Think about the content your child's exposed to, and depending upon the developmental age of the child, having conversations with your child about things they see on TV or have access to through the Internet or music lyrics."