Internet generation leave parents behind
Children are spending increasing amounts of their lives in front of televisions, computers and games consoles, cramming in nearly six hours of screen time a day, according to research.
The online activity is building barriers between parents and children, the authors say, with a third of young people insisting they cannot live without their computer.
From the age of seven children are building multimedia hubs in their rooms, with games consoles, internet access and MP3 players, which they wake up to in the morning and fall asleep to at night, according to the study of five- to 16-year-olds.
Girls in particular are likely to chat online to their friends at night and 38% take a console to bed instead of a book.
Some parents who have stopped their children from having a TV in their bedroom for fear they will watch it too much have justified internet access on the basis that it will help with homework.
But the latest from market research agency ChildWise finds children and young teens are more likely to socialise than do homework online. Some 30% say they have a blog and 62% have a profile on a social networking site.
The report is based on an annual survey, now into its 15th year, of 1,800 children at 92 schools across the country. "This year has seen a major boost to the intensity and the independence with which children approach online activities," the report says.
Screen time has become so pervasive in the daily lives of five- to 16-year-olds that they are now skilled managers of their free time, juggling technology to fit in on average six hours of TV, playing games and surfing the net, it suggests.
But reading books is falling out of favour - 84% said they read for pleasure in 2006, 80% in 2007 and 74% this year.
To pay for their habits, ad hoc handouts from parents and grandparents are becoming more lucrative and in some cases replacing ordinary pocket money altogether. Two-thirds of children had been given a handout from a family member in the week before they were questioned, which they didn't expect to pay back.
Children who use the internet spend on average 1.7 hours a day online, but one in six spent more than three hours a day online on top of the 1.5 hours they spent on their games consoles. They still have time for 2.7 hours of television - though the report says they tend to multitask, doing these activities simultaneously.
Where children initially began using the internet to do homework, that has become an afterthought and they are much more likely to spend their time online socialising. One in three said the computer is the single thing they couldn't live without, compared with a declining number - one in five - who name television.
Pupils are using the internet less while at school, frustrated by the low-tech access and the restrictions put in place to stop them from accessing inappropriate material. Younger girls are now catching up with boys in the use of games consoles.
The government has moved to address what has been dubbed the "toxic childhood" of children living under intense media influence. Just over a year ago the government published a long-term plan that ordered a review of children's media habits by psychologist Tanya Byron.
Byron recommended cinema-style ratings for video games as she warned of a "digital divide" growing up within families as children mastered the internet and video games while their parents and grandparents often had little clue about the material they were looking at.
Today's research suggests that could now be the case. Rosemary Duff, ChildWise's research director, said: "The internet has moved to a whole new level. They are watching the same amount of TV but there is a change in the way children communicate and get their information.
"It's so clear that a lot of children are fluent communicators but not in a conventional way. They aren't readers, they are reliant on spellchecks.
"They are a generation abandoning print and paper, and the whole integration of technology and the way they glide from one to the other is seamless. They will be surfing the net, talking to a friend and downloading a track simultaneously.
"It's hard for the older generation to understand what's going on with their children because they communicate in a completely different way."
Duff said: "38% of nine- to 14-year-old girls take the games console to bed at night. That is the age group of girls who used to be the most avid readers. Now they have a media hub in their rooms."
A quarter of five-year-olds have the internet in their room. One in three eight-year olds have a mobile phone
By the time they leave primary school two in five have the net in their room. Four out of five still read for pleasure.
Around half have internet access, spending 2.2 hours a day on sites such as YouTube, Bebo and MySpace. Almost all have their own phone.
'I bought my telly. I thought: I'm 14 and I've got Christmas money'
"My dad's always trying to tell me about something in the news and I know it already," says Louis Fitzherbert, 14, from south London.
Though keeping tabs on football is why he regularly dips into his bedroom TV, picking up doses of current affairs is an unintended bonus.
"I invested in my own telly," he says. "A lot of my friends have tellies in their rooms. I thought: I'm 14 and I've got Christmas money ..."
His family have thus recovered the use of the communal set, which he had colonised for another passion, Call of Duty (CoD), a PlayStation war game. He plays online with schoolmates and with like-minded enthusiasts all over the world.
He rations himself to an hour's CoD on weekday evenings after homework. But weekend nights are a different story.
"At friends' houses or at mine we find ourselves playing it past midnight," he says.
If one eye is kept on Sky Sports News for the latest scores, the other clocks Facebook and MSN Messenger four or five times an evening to keep in touch with friends. A Facebook check is the first thing he does after school.
Louis sees a danger in spending too much time with screens but says a screen-free life would be difficult to imagine.
"It would be hard. I think it would be hard for any boy of my age."
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