U.S. Youth Spend More Time on Computers, Less in Front of TV

Check the GOVERNING Data interactive for individual state trends in computer and television use by high school students.
by | June 11, 2012

America’s youth are plugging into their computers more and watching television a little less, according to the 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last week. According to the survey, 31.1 percent of high school students spend three hours or more on the computer every day (up from 24.9 percent in 2007 and 21.1 percent in 2005) while 32.4 percent watch three hours of television every day (down from 35.4 percent in 2007 and 37.2 in 2005).

Habits vary significantly across states. Students in Hawaii (36.6 percent) are nearly twice as likely as their peers in Utah (18.7 percent) to log three or more hours daily on their computers. The same holds true for television: 42.6 percent of Mississippi youth spend three or more hours in front of the television every day, compared to 19.3 percent in Utah.

The Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey is compiled from more than 15,500 completed questionnaires across a nationally representative sample of students in grades 9 through 12. Results from three states (Minnesota, Oregon and Washington) were not included because they opted not to participate. Six other states (California, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Vermont) did not obtain enough responses to calculate results for the computer and television use questions.

The CDC also broke down its 2011 results among the 21 biggest school districts in the United States. Of those, high school students in Seattle, Wash., were the least likely to spend three or more hours daily on the computer (28.2 percent) while those in New York (43.9 percent) were the most likely. Seattleites also watched less television daily than their counterparts elsewhere (22.7 percent watched three hours or more), and Memphis students appeared to be the biggest couch potatoes (56.4 percent watched three hours or more).

The combined percentages of U.S. high school students spending three hours each day in front of the computer or the TV has steadily increased, reaching 63.5 percent in 2011 (compared to 59.7 percent in 2007 and 58.3 percent in 2005).

As Governing has previously reported, students’ comfort with technology has led to a reimagining of classroom instruction and how to deliver it. A recent survey found more than 85 percent of students would rather learn from a video game than a textbook. An estimated 1.8 million students take online classes part-time, according to the International Association of K-12 Online Learning, and 250,000 are enrolled full-time in virtual schools. Twenty-seven states operate statewide public online schools.

Some early analysis has also indicated that online learning could also present a cost-saving opportunity for states and schools. A study commissioned by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education policy group, estimated that a fully virtual learning environment could save up to $3,600 per student (national per-pupil spending averages $10,500). A model that blends digital learning with traditional modes could save more than $1,000 per student, the study found.

“School has gone from being a noun, a place where you go to learn, to a verb with a focus on learning,” said Holly Sagues, chief policy officer at the Florida Virtual School, during a discussion in April. Her school, the first of its kind when it opened in 1997, serves more than 120,000 students and spends about $1,300 less per pupil than its brick-and-mortar counterparts in the state.

While some might cite the above numbers as further evidence that today’s youth are becoming lazier, the CDC findings actually contradict that point: 49.5 percent of high school students reported in 2011 that they were physically active for at least 60 minutes five days out of the week, up from 35.8 percent in 2007.

It is noteworthy that the physical exercise recommendations for youth increased from at least 20 minutes per day, three days per week, to at least 60 minutes per day, five days per week, between the 2005 and 2007 surveys.

However, the 2011 figures still reveal that more than half of U.S. high school students aren’t meeting their exercise recommendations. In its own July 2011 obesity report, F as in Fat, Trust for America's Health, an independent advocacy group, noted that policymakers can play an important role in encouraging more physical activity among youth.

"Creating healthy environments is key to reversing the obesity epidemic, particularly for children," said Ruth Lavizzo-Mourey, president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which co-authored that report. "When children have safe places to walk, bike and play in their communities, they're more likely to be active and less likely to be obese."

Check Governing's interactive table below for available data from individual states.

The following table shows estimated percentages of high school students spending three hours or more per day using the computer/playing video games or watching television:


Source: CDC, Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance, 2011

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