Debate flares anew over minority youth media intake and academics

newsroom@tri-statedefender.com | 7/13/2011, 7 p.m.

Special to the NNPA from America’s Wire

Krystal Murphy received her first cellphone at age 13 and she used it solely to keep her parents in the loop about her activities. Four years later, her use of the phone has changed dramatically. Now 17, she relies on it to text friends, surf the Internet and send messages on Twitter.

“I’m on my cell all day, every day, as soon as I wake up and until I go to bed,” says the African-American teen from South Los Angeles.

According to a Northwestern University study of youth media consumption, Krystal’s habits are widespread among young people of color. Released in June, “Children, Media and Race: Media Use Among White, Black, Hispanic, and Asian American Children” found that those between ages 8 and 18 use cellphones, television, computers and other electronic devices to consume an average of 13 hours of media content daily. That’s 4-1/2 hours more than their white counterparts.

The study has renewed debate about whether minority youths spend too much time on media consumption and not enough on reading and studying. While some people insist that the disparity in media consumption contributes to the education gap between minority and white youths, others cite it as a positive that can aid a child’s educational growth.

“I think that the results of this study coupled with the other factors that we know influence student performance,” says Sharon Lewis, research director for the Council of the Great City Schools, an advocate for urban public schools and students. “When you combine all of this together, it’s another indication that we need to take extra steps to reach (minority) youth.

“Factors such as health, such as preschool experience, such as a sibling that may not have graduated, such as coming from a single-parent household and then you add this (media consumption) to it – it’s another indication.”

Past reports have shown a correlation between television viewing and low academic performance. A 20-year study of 678 families released in 2007 by the New York State Psychiatric Institute found that teens who watched three or more hours of television daily had an 82 percent greater chance of not graduating from high school when compared with those who watched less than an hour. However, critics of that study say students who struggle academically may be more inclined to watch TV to avoid the rigors of schoolwork.

The Northwestern study is said to be the first in the United States to examine children’s media use by race. Nearly 1,900 youths participated. The study re-analyzed data from previous Kaiser Family Foundation studies on media consumption, finding that racial differences in children’s media use remained static when accounting for socioeconomic status or whether youths came from single- or two-parent homes.

The results, which appeared to counter concerns about a possible digital divide and may give parents and educators new strategies to meet needs of minority youths, surprised Ellen Wartella, head of Northwestern’s Center on Media and Human Development. She co-authored the study.