Our kids and the power of the media
by Dr. Andy Oakes-Lottridge / May 22, 2012
It’s late, dinner isn’t ready, homework still has to be checked, kids are going in different directions, and my wife is caught at work later than expected. TV to the rescue. Suddenly the 2-year-old is quiet and content. The 9-year-old is leaving his older siblings alone because his eyes are also glued to the oversized screen on the living room wall. I can finally focus on dinner and answering homework questions from the older kids. Not the best parenting tactic, and thankfully not a common occurrence in our house, but we’ve all done it.
In fact, by some estimates, kids today spend more than five hours a day in front of a screen. Most have televisions in their bedrooms, smart phones with access to the world, and private access to a laptop or video games. According to a report from 2007, by the time kids are 18 years of age, they’ve seen more than 200,000 acts of violence on TV. The Kaiser Family Foundation reported in 2005 that TV programs targeted toward teenagers actually have more sexual content than adult prime-time shows. Young people are subjected to billions of dollars in tobacco and alcohol advertising, and the internet and video game markets are only beginning to be tapped by modern advertisers.
Of course it’s a given, not all kids that watch violence on TV or play violent games are going to behave aggressive
ly. Not everyone who sees a smoking commercial will light up. Watching irresponsible sexual activity on TV may not lead to every teenage getting pregnant. However, numerous studies point to very clear and frightening connections that media exposure can and does have a detrimental effect on aggression, sexual activity, smoking, drinking, poor grades in school, and possibly obesity.
The other frightening fact is that as parents, educators, and physicians, we are failing at educating our kids properly on how to deal with the deluge of messages they get from the media, most of them negative. If you think this doesn’t apply to you, then you are not alone. The social science research out there clearly demonstrates that most teens and parents understand the risks of media influence but believe erroneously that it affects everyone but them.
In 2007 the Oxford University Press reported that more than half of all video games contain violence, but a recent effort by the State of California to regulate the sales of violent games to kids was thrown out by the Supreme Court. While not all players of first person shooting games will gun down their classmates, there is a clear and well documented association between aggressive behavior and violent games where violence is often portrayed without consequence or reason.
As for sexual content available to kids on TV, the internet, and print media…clearly we aren’t doing a very good job limiting it. All you have to do is see the advertisements for Abercrombe and Fitch or an episode of Grey’s Anatomy or Zack and Cody if you don’t believe me. We are right to worry that sexual content in the media affects sexual activity by our teens. Numerous studies over the last ten years indicate increased risk of exposure to sexually explicit media content with unplanned pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, sexual intercourse, oral sex, and sexual harassment of teenage women.
Media often portray sex as a normal and risk free activity. Nevertheless, media can have a very positive role as well. Programs and advertisements can educate and inform our teens. However we won’t see any advertisements on the TV for condoms, even though there is no evidence that access to condom use does not increase sexual activity, it only increases the use of condoms. As for education in our school, sexual and health related topics are often poorly and inconsistently taught, if at all.
But there is hope and there are things we can do. For kids under two, avoid any screen time. While there are educational programs for these young kids, there is NO evidence that they are beneficial in any way to language or mental development. For all kids over two, limit non-school related screen time to less than two hours a day. Get the TVs and computers out of their bedrooms. Watch programs with your kids and don’t be shy about voicing your opinion about everything from violence to fast food commercials. Lead by example — pick up a book, and limit your own screen time.
While the media has a dramatic influence on our kids, several studies continue to demonstrate that our own influence on our kids is even stronger. Lastly, don’t be shy to ask for help from your family doctor for advice if you don’t know where to start. In discussing the need for bike helmets and seatbelts, media exposure counseling is often neglected. So if we don’t mention it, don’t be shy to ask.