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Originally published Wednesday, March 16, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Can democracy survive our media-saturated society?

The suspicions and fears of parents and teachers are now confirmed by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a respected voice in the field of medicine...

Special to The Times

THE suspicions and fears of parents and teachers are now confirmed by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a respected voice in the field of medicine and social issues.

As suspected, young people are spending many of their waking hours absorbed in media of one type or another, primarily television and other forms of visual stimulation. Bedrooms for youngsters ages 8 to 18 have increasingly become media centers, with televisions, CD players, radios, DVD players, video-game consoles and computers with Internet access.

Because there are only so many hours in the day, youngsters are simply packing more media into each hour — multitasking. Outside school, they spend about 6.2 hours a day with media, but much of this usage overlaps — for example, a youngster watching television and surfing the Internet simultaneously — so they are using a combined total of 8.3 hours of media every day, an increase of an hour in the past five years.

The inventive energy of American scientists is being turned on itself, as our distracted teens fail to compete in science and math with peers in other countries. We have created our own nightmare.

Parents have a difficult time even keeping up with the names of the newest electronics (MP3, TiVo, etc.), let alone their effects.

People who work with young adults already know that most of them have the attention span of a fruit fly, and that they are woefully ignorant of world affairs, or even local events beyond the realm of entertainment.

Graduates of some of our finest high schools have shown up in my classes unable to name the century of the Civil War or define rights protected by the First Amendment. But they know all the rap stars and top athletes.

They are obsessed with media — but seldom the news media or serious reading.

Several years ago, we began seeing an increase in college students signing up for journalism or communication majors. Colleagues in other schools noted the same; some schools of communication are among the largest in their universities.

Yet, only a handful of these students want to actually be journalists, working in the realm of news. Even fewer want to be reporters, foot soldiers of the news business.

Most simply came our way, I remain convinced, because they wanted to have something to do with "media" — invariably associated with television, seldom with newspapers or magazines.

Puzzled deans couldn't figure out why journalism, traditionally a low-paying profession, was attracting such interest among the materialistic students of the 1990s.

"Because they are saturated with media, it dominates their lives, and among university majors only journalism or communications seems to have an obvious link to 'media' as they see it," I told my deans.

Steeped in higher-education tradition, they didn't really "get it" or, if they did, they hoped it would go away and these young people would enroll in physics and Romance languages.

I don't think so.

The Kaiser study, "Generation M" (www.kff.org), is hard evidence of the importance of media in the lives of our young people. The explosion of cable television, cellphones with text messaging, video games and iPods has captured them and there is no return. Parental limits on media use do help, the study shows, but they seem like a rear-guard action.

Politicians and other mass-media hucksters are well ahead of parents and teachers. They know image trumps substance in a multitasking world. Farsighted authors (Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" in 1932, Neil Postman's "Amusing Ourselves to Death," 1985) predicted a society in which a love affair with technology and entertainment stripped us of our capacity to engage in the serious thinking that sustains a democratic society.

We are seeing that right now as young people are the only segment of the population supporting President Bush's privatization of Social Security. Bush delivers his pitch on television, in carefully rigged campaign stops where he gets fawning, uncritical coverage.

Meanwhile, the frumpy old print media is universally blasting privatization, citing studies by respected experts and agencies. Older citizens — who still read — oppose privatization. Bush and his handlers understand the world of multitasking and its impact on harried, distracted young people.

In today's intense, media-dominated society, young people have no spare time to reflect, to think deep or long-range thoughts. They are never away from instant visual stimulation, often a mélange of media at the same time.

In the media-saturated world, the importance of image over substance dominates politics, and big money to purchase media time decides elections.

More ain't better, and our democracy is already feeling the effects.

Floyd J. McKay, a journalism professor emeritus at Western Washington University, is a regular contributor to Times editorial pages. E-mail him at floydmckay@yahoo.com

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