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Youth: Kids' rooms have always been a place for play and sanctuary, but now they're often more--high-tech entertainment centers, with everything from stereo to computer to fax machine.

February 23, 1996|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nowadays it starts very young. Like when 6-year-old Lauren Mitchell of Costa Mesa told her mother, Cindy, that she wanted "a computer and a colored printer."

And, she added, shouldn't we get one of those machines that send notes like the one they had in that movie? That way she could send notes to her friends.

"We used to pass notes in class," her mother said, "but she wants to fax them."

Seemingly in no time, you develop into a Chris Parnell, 16, who comes home from school, tosses his keys onto the table, goes upstairs to his room and stays there. Except for a dinner break, he often doesn't emerge again until the next morning.

"We encourage him to go out," said his mother, Claudette, "but he's so happy in his room. There's so much to do."

Totally. Within the four walls of his bedroom in a high-tech home in an affluent corner of Los Angeles, Chris has a 25-inch swivel TV, a VCR, a state-of-the-art computer and color printer, a stereo CD player, a synthesizer, speakers under and on his desk and in the ceiling, and two telephones.

His friends don't call on the portable, he said, because "it would conflict with the fax machine."

Kids' rooms have always been used for play and sanctuary, but only recently have they turned into miniplex entertainment centers.

With thousands of dollars worth of equipment in his room, Chris may be on the frontier in terms of quantity and quality, but others are not far behind. According to a 1995 survey by Teenage Research Unlimited of Northbrook, Ill., 71% of 12- to 19-year-olds said they owned their own stereo, 65% had their own television, 65% had their own phone and 35% had their own computer.

(Other surveys have produced lower figures but confirm the basic trend.)

Researchers said kids are getting wired earlier than before. "Clearly, where at one time we saw 13 and 14 as the low age group for computers, home audio systems, TVs and VCRs, now it's down to 8, 9 and 10," said Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, a Charleston, S.C., market trend researching company.

Eight-year-old JD Ciasulli of Manhattan Beach said he has a computer and a telephone in his room but wants a TV and a VCR. If he had a TV, he said, "I could lay in bed and watch TV. My brother doesn't let me lay in bed in his room with the TV."

His brother Rocky, 10, said it's important for kids to have their own TVs because "We like to watch it without people bothering us and stuff."

The trend leaves social critics with many unanswered questions. Why have parents loaded their children's rooms? Are they too exhausted to negotiate the sharing of equipment? Do they care? How will the unsupervised entertainment and isolation affect children in the long run? Is it the last straw in America's flight from family and community involvement?

Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a psychiatrist and director of the media center at Harvard University's Judge Baker Children's Center, believes most parents have given kids their own equipment to diminish quarrels about what channel to watch or who's going to use the phone or computer. "It's a way of sending kids off to their room and using TV as a baby sitter and getting them out of their hair, frankly," he said.

But some parents also want their children to have the same material goods as the neighbors' children. Some contend having the equipment offers pride, freedom and responsibility, similar to having a car. Others hope they are providing their children with a competitive educational edge.

"In some ways, I feel it gives them what they're not getting in the educational system," said Lynn Calkins of Westchester, whose son Carl, 16, has a TV, video game player, phone, stereo and computer in his room.

Moreover, some parents said they are at least assured their kids are physically safe when they hear the drones, clicks and kapows! emanating from behind their closed doors.

Others wonder.

"Now, all sorts of guests are being invited into a child's bedroom, some of whom may be sanctioned by parents, and others of whom probably are not," said Barbara Wilson, a communications professor at UC Santa Barbara.

Poussaint noted that the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Pediatric Assn. have issued warnings on children's exposure to the media. "It's clear that the people who feel responsible for the well-being of children are very concerned about the long-range effects, even if it's limited to physical health and fitness," Poussaint said. "If they don't go outside and play, they're going to get fat."

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