In the 1950s smoking was everywhere.There was a cultural assumption that it was cool to smoke and everyone had the right. People smoked sitting next to you on planes or restaurants, and in the office. Advertisements were plastered on billboards around the world, and actors smoked throughout both television shows and movies. Even doctors touted their favorite cigarette brand in magazines. And then, slowly, we realized that smoking has significant health risks. It became a well-defined public health concern and steps were taken to protect our children from the hazards of cigarettes and second-hand smoke.
Today our society seems more attuned to potential risks in our environment. A few years ago, preliminary evidence uncovered a possible danger from a certain plastic found in bottles. Parents leapt into action and because of that pressure companies stopped using it. Studies about potential risks of pesticides and food dyes make headlines for weeks and weeks after their release.
Imagine what would happen if a substance in our water supply was linked to obesity, poor academic performance, aggressive behavior, and early sexuality in teens. It sounds horrifying, impossible we would expose our children to such risk. There would be a public outcry. Yet in reality, that ‘substance' already exists. Unregulated media time for children and teens has been linked to all these problems and more. A generation from now, what are we going to think about the excesses we are now allowing?
It's the Message and the Messenger
In the same way as smoking once was, video screens today are inescapable. Televisions and computers sit throughout the house, in living rooms and kitchens and bedrooms - even in those of young children. They are in our cars, and media is accessible on our laptops and phones. We encounter more screens at the gas pump, barber, in airports, doctor waiting rooms, in line at the supermarket, and everywhere we turn. They continue to multiply, seemingly exponentially, without any real attention paid to possible implications. We are living on autopilot, individually and as a society, allowing it to happen to us instead of giving fair consideration to what is beneficial, what is harmful, and what could be simply inappropriate for many younger viewers.
Children don't fully understand the difference between reality and the pretend situations they see on TV and the computer screen. Younger children don't see the difference at all. Older children may be able to label something ‘pretend' and still not fully grasp the subtle (and not so subtle) implications of anything from a violent police show or video game to reality television in general. Many teens lack the judgment to separate fact from fiction, recklessly mimicking inappropriate behaviors they watch on screen without recognizing the potential implications in their own, very real, lives.
This inability to understand media fully has always been true for kids, but the medium has changed immensely. The level and type of violence seen in cartoons and shows, the sexual content, and the direct sales pitches aimed at kids are nothing like a generation ago. The images are far more graphic and realistic, the marketing more targeted and inappropriate.
Studies have shown that as media hours increase, so does the risk of everything noted above - from obesity to sexuality and experimentation with alcohol to behavioral issues. They have shown that exposure to violence and aggression numbs children to them. They have suggested that increased media hours may even correlate with academic and attention problems.
Who do you want to sway your child's choices, your family and friends or a corporation? Marketing influences behavior or it wouldn't exist, and billions of dollars are spent on it. Children are particularly susceptible to media influences and companies take advantage. Advertisers have known for years a basic fact - seeing a product promoted multiple times makes it more likely a child will prefer it to another (perhaps healthier) option. Businesses today have become as skilled at defining what motivates young children as child psychologists, if not more so. (We may be starting to catch up - just this week regulations on marketing to kids were recommended by the government.)
I don't mean to say that we should get rid of our televisions, smart phones, or computers. Technology is part of the fabric of society and provides many benefits and plenty of healthy entertainment. But for some parents, there seems to be an assumption that media trends are either untamable or completely benign. Instead of waiting a generation to regret the effects of unfiltered media, we can start by making long-sighted, rational choices that fit our individual families' needs.
Smoking and media is not a perfect analogy. Smoking is absolutely bad for anyone in any quantity and media is not. Media is entertaining and at times informative, and helps us organize and find information. So perhaps it would be more precise to say this: Media is to healthy child development what dessert is to healthy eating.
We don't expect children to regulate their own dessert intake. Most kids, if allowed to make their own choices, would elect to eat more junk food than is best for their health. Instead of letting that happen, we guide them and set boundaries that over time teach self-care. Some children need more supervision, some children need less - but all of them need guidance. In the same way, it is imperative that instead of letting anything just happen to us, parents make intentional choices about the role of media in our lives.
Action Steps for Media Control
Here are some starting points for any parent to consider.
• Decide how much media time makes sense for your household. Choose an amount, set a timer if needed, and establish clear limits. Consider scheduling weekly media-free days for everyone in your family. Establish healthy family habits early by keeping the television off during meals, and turning it off when no one is directly watching. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than one to two hours of screen time a day total; younger kids need far less. Other healthy alternatives, especially as homework loads increase, are to allow none at all during the week or none until homework is completed.
• Set clear limits about how much time is appropriate each day, or each week. Few kids are going to be strong arbiters about what content makes sense, or when to stop. Children's brains are not wired to self-monitor; that skill doesn't fully develop until they are in their 20s. Some children prove themselves more capable of self-regulation around media than others, but letting children find their own way is rarely the best answer.
• Know what is appropriate and what is not. Confirm that media content is appropriate for your child. The ratings systems are industry created, so check with a neutral source like Common Sense Media (n.b. I am on the editorial board for this organization). Watch a few minutes of the games your kids are playing and the shows they are watching. You may be shocked at how graphic they have become. Choose the shows your children will watch, never letting them channel surf. Many Internet service providers, computer companies, and cable companies offer software that filter media based on parental choices; install it early.
• Limit exposure to commercials and advertising. While marketing is now woven into plot lines and harder to skip, to minimize advertising influence emphasize DVDs and use digital recording to skip commercials.
• Tell your kids what you're doing and why. Since we can't avoid all marketing, take the time to discuss its influence with children while it is happening. Make a game of it, if you like. Make sure they understand at an early age that advertising aims to change how we think and behave.
• Keep screen time to the public parts of the house. Don't place computers or TVs in your kids' bedrooms. For portable media like laptops and phones, move it downstairs at bedtime.
• Monitor what media has been replacing in your child's life. We know of distinct benefits for cognitive development found through free play, sharing family meals and unstructured social time with adults and with peers. There is a large difference between ‘active' entertainment, which involves creativity, imagination, and socializing, versus ‘passive' entertainment, which (even when it is exciting) involves a computer leading and offering options. Educational software may prove to have benefits one day, but we are only in the beginning stages of figuring out what works and what doesn't for computer-based education.
• Observe your family lifestyle. Are your children learning about unstructured, creative play? Are they discovering ways to entertain themselves, and to honor down time? Do they have the ability to maintain linear thoughts, dig deeper into activities, and problem-solve rather than skim along the surface? However entrenched or inevitable some habits may seem, other choices are always possible. At any point in time, you have the ability to pause, reassess, and take a step onto a new path.
Media Time and ADHD
When children have behavioral or developmental issues in particular, media time often allows adults to get things done. But while all children are susceptible to marketing tactics and influenced by inappropriate content, those with conditions like attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are particularly vulnerable. The list of child development concerns related to media exposure roughly parallels the risks of having ADHD; both media and ADHD increase the risk of obesity, aggression, academic problems, early smoking, and early sexuality. The combination may increase the likelihood of issues developing down the road.
Excessive, unregulated media time is even more risky for kids with ADHD than the rest of thepopulation, and they will need even more parental guidance. ADHD is a delay in social judgment and self-regulation, and children with ADHD are therefore less able than others to govern their own choices around media. Some psychologists believe people with ADHD are at risk for an actual "internet addiction". That doesn't mean you should never use the television or computer to distract your kids while you make dinner or pay bills. It does mean staying aware and monitoring both the amount of time and content of media along the way.
In the United States, children average between three and six hours a day of television and computer time. Research shows that increased television hours correlate with many adverse behaviors in children:
• Children who watch more television are more likely to be obese. Television may replace healthier activities, and encourages the consumption of advertised foods and drinks.
• Children may learn to act aggressively through television viewing. They may become desensitized to the reality of violence, and may model situations where violence solves problems.
• Teens (and preteens) who watch more television are more likely to be sexually active early. Even in shows geared to 2-11 year olds, in a recent study 29% of conversation was shown to involve sex and dating.
• A 2008 study linked the risk of teen pregnancy with sexual content within shows they watched.
• Attitudes about drinking are learned from television. Children report wanting to be happy and have fun like people shown in ads related to alcohol.
• Studies have also shown a correlation between having short attention span and increased television viewing when young.