Does Too Much Media Make our Kids Sick?

The new couch potato: Internet Inflation

Posted Aug 28, 2010

Here's a sample of recent headlines about the impact of media on health:

• Why media could be bad for your child's health - Time Magazine
• Kids getting fatter, sicker: Experts blame junk food, video games - Chicago Sun-Times
• TVs toll on young minds and bodies - New York Times
• TV ads Entice Kids to Overeat, Study Finds - The Washington Post
• Nintendo Thumb points to RSIs (repetitive stress injuries) - Wired Magazine

I pulled these article titles from just the last year or two. When I went to look at the research literature I found that most studies show that kids who play more video games or watch more television are more sedentary and consume unhealthy snacks. Commonsense Media, an excellent resource for parents, educators, and other professionals examined 173 high quality studies and 80% of them showed greater media exposure was related to negative health outcomes.

Our American population is fat. Current statistics show that 66% of adults are overweight or obese and 32% of children are overweight or "at risk" for becoming overweight. These statistics have increased steadily since the late 1970s. A few more facts for you to digest:

• Half of TV ad time is for food and three-quarters of all TV ads are for candy, snacks, sugared cereals, and fast food (Mommy, I want to go to McDonald's for dinner! Puleeeeeease!).
• 2- to 7-year-olds watch 17 minutes of TV ads per day and gobble up 4,400 food ads per year.
• 8- to 12-year-olds see 7,600 food ads per year and teens watch 6,000.
• Young children consume 5 hours of media per day including 2 hours of television.
• Preteens watch television, play video games, and are online for more than 8 hours per day with some media used at the same time through multitasking.
Teenagers multitask constantly and use media 15 hours per day.
• Half of children, two-thirds of preteens and 7 in 10 teens have a TV in their bedroom.
• More than half of all children have a video game console in their bedroom. That number skies to two-thirds of preteens and 70% of teens.
• 40% of children spend one hour or less outside playing. More than 50% of preteens and teens do the same.

Julie Felt and I studied more than 1,000 parents to determine ill-being (psychological problems, behavioral problems, attention difficulties, and physical symptomology) in their 4-18 year-old children. Using multivariate statistical techniques we first accounted for parent demographics (age, gender, education, ethnicity, family median income, and BMI); child age and gender; child unhealthy eating; and child lack of outdoor play or exercise and then asked the question:

"Does media consumption predict ill-being in children, preteens, and teenagers?"

What we found was astounding. For all ages, even after controlling for all possible alternative explanations, total media usage predicted all forms of ill-being. Further, for children this was mainly due to playing video games, listening to music, and watching television. For preteens, the culprits were telephone use and video game playing. For teens, every form of media predicted several types of ill-being.

[Statistical geek side note: The data were collected using anonymous, online surveys in the greater Los Angeles area. Census figures were compared to sample demographics and provided a match. Path analysis was used with a .05 level of significance to computer beta weights from a hierarchical multiple regression. End of stats.]

So, what does that tell us? Parents need to be diligent in their job of parenting. I am not suggesting that you become a Luddite family and pull the TV plug, toss the Wii, get rid of all cell phones, or restrict kids from the Internet. I am not suggesting that you invest in software to restrict your kids from visiting questionable websites or logging all their keystrokes. I most certainly don't think you should spy on your kids and surreptitiously monitor their Facebook page. That just leads to other problems and face it, the kids (even the youngest ones) are way too savvy. They just go to the library, study at a friend's house, or find a workaround for any technological barriers.

The answer is that there needs to be a balance between media and other activities. Children should do non-tech activities to gain media time. Family time is important. Family meals are highly correlated with parent and child health. And that means no tech at the table mom and dad. Put away all cell phones. Turn off the TV. TALK! Dinners don't have to be long. Too much time at the table and your teen's fingers will start twitching like they are texting without the phone. I also advocate regular family discussions, perhaps weekly, where you all sit on the floor and discuss what technology is being used and how it is going. Ask your kids questions and then LISTEN. Don't be judgmental. Revel in their excitement and ask them to show you how something new they have discovered works. If you cringe at times, hold it in and save it for a later talk that does not subvert the safety of the family discussion.

In my new book, Rewired: Understanding the iGeneration and the Way They Learn, I am a strong advocate of using WWW ("Whatever, Wherever, Whenever") technologies such as the Internet and mobile devices as teaching tools. How do I reconcile this with our results? It all comes back to the home environment and I talk about this in Me, MySpace, and I: Parenting the Net Generation. If school work involves technology then students need to be directed to doing their work for periods of time, followed by other activities, and then back to their studies, and the cycle continues until homework is done. In my experience in working with families, the formula that works best with preteens and teens is 30 minutes of non-tech followed by one hour of tech (schoolwork done with technology or without but tech multitasking should be allowed!). Remember, these kids spend many hours a day connected and are in constant contact with friends through social networks, texting, and other tech pipelines. This is their social life and you cannot deny them that which helps them develop and grow. You can, however, use their love of technology to make schoolwork more fun while setting guidelines that improve their health. Everyone wins.