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Are kids too plugged in?

What's all that digital juggling doing to their brains, family life?

Editor's note: The following is a summary of this week's Time magazine cover story. Tonight, learn how kids' obsession with their electronic gadgets is seriously affecting family life on "Anderson Cooper 360°," 10 p.m. ET.

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It's become routine for kids to conduct IM conversations, watch TV and do Google searches at the same time.

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(Time.comexternal link) -- It wasn't long ago when kids used to rave about their radios and CD players.

Today 82 percent of kids are online by the seventh grade, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

The big finding of a 2005 survey of Americans ages 8 to 18 by the Kaiser Family Foundation is not that kids were spending a larger chunk of time using electronic media -- that was holding steady at 6.5 hours a day (could it possibly get any bigger?) -- but that they were packing more media exposure into that time: 8.5 hours' worth, thanks to "media multitasking" -- listening to iTunes, watching a DVD and IMing friends all at the same time.

Human beings have always had a capacity to attend to several things at once. Mothers have done it since the hunter-gatherer era -- picking berries while suckling an infant, stirring the pot with one eye on the toddler.

Nor is electronic multitasking entirely new: We've been driving while listening to car radios since they became popular in the 1930s.

But there is no doubt that the phenomenon has reached a kind of warp speed in the era of Web-enabled computers, when it has become routine to conduct six IM conversations, watch American Idol on TV and Google the names of last season's finalists all at once.

But what's the impact of this media consumption? And how are these multitasking devices changing how kids learn, reason and interact with one another?

Social scientists and educators are just beginning to tackle these questions, but the researchers already have some strong opinions.

Although multitasking kids may be better prepared in some ways for today's frenzied workplace, many cognitive scientists are positively alarmed by the trend. "Kids that are instant messaging while doing homework, playing games online and watching TV, I predict, aren't going to do well in the long run," says Jordan Grafman, chief of the cognitive neuroscience section at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

On the positive side, Gen M students tend to be extraordinarily good at finding and manipulating information. And presumably because modern childhood tilts toward visual rather than print media, they are especially skilled at analyzing visual data and images, observes Claudia Koonz, professor of history at Duke University. A growing number of college professors are using film, audio clips and PowerPoint presentations to play to their students' strengths and capture their evanescent attention.

By the time many kids get to college, their devices have become extensions of themselves, indispensable social accessories.

"The minute the bell rings at most big public high schools, the first thing most kids do is reach into their bag and pick up their cell phone," observes Denise Clark Pope, lecturer at the Stanford School of Education, "never mind that the person [they're contacting] could be right down the hall."

Many educators and psychologists say parents need to actively ensure that their teenagers break free of compulsive engagement with screens and spend time in the physical company of human beings -- a growing challenge not just because technology offers such a handy alternative but because so many kids lead highly scheduled lives that leave little time for old-fashioned socializing and family meals. Indeed, many teenagers and college students say overcommitted schedules drive much of their multitasking.

Just as important is for parents and educators to teach kids, preferably by example, that it's valuable, even essential, to occasionally slow down, unplug and take time to think about something for a while.

For all the hand-wringing about Generation M, technology is not really the problem.

"The problem," says Sudbury, Massachusetts, psychiatrist and author Edward Hallowell, "is what you are not doing if the electronic moment grows too large" --too large for the teenager and too large for those parents who are equally tethered to their gadgets.

In that case, says Hallowell, "you are not having family dinner, you are not having conversations, you are not debating whether to go out with a boy who wants to have sex on the first date, you are not going on a family ski trip or taking time just to veg. It's not so much that the video game is going to rot your brain, it's what you are not doing that's going to rot your life."

Click hereexternal link for the entire cover story on Time.



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