The Media as Parent
What the research doesn’t tell us
Posted Jul 05, 2012
Does the media truly function as a family member? After years in child and adolescent psychiatry, I first posed this question since many kids in therapy insisted on telling me about media productions that have deeply touched them. Slowly I began to see these media creations as virtual family members affecting family structure and children’s inner lives in unexplored ways. In my quest to learn more about the media’s expanding place in our lives, I examined the social science literature on the subject.
Quickly I learned that concern among social scientists about the media’s effects dates back at least to the advent of television, when certain social scientists in the 1950s testified before Congress on the ill effects of violent media. Other social scientists, however, debunked these concerns, characterizing their scholarly peers as fun-killers whose scientific techniques were flawed.
Yet the concerned social scientists were relentless. In 1961, then-FCC head Newton Minot warned about the emptiness of television programming. In the early 1980s, UPenn Professor George Gerbner coined the term “mean world syndrome” to describe how extensive media viewing cultivated in the child a tendency to see the world as meaner than it really is. Later, Professor Jane Brown at UNC coined the term “super peer” to describe how the media takes on the role of a powerful peer for many American children and adolescents. By the 1990s the number of scientific studies on the media and its harmful effects burgeoned.
In 2006 a scholarly review article in Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine concluded that children who engage in extensive watching of violent media tend toward greater violence. In an article published in the same year, Professor John Murray and his co-authors summarized a growing consensus among social scientists: Because violence is the staple of children’s media viewing at every age, most children are ripe for developing four distinct problems. The first three are increased fear, desensitization to violence, and greater aggression. Fourth, social scientists have detected the subtle but definite implantation in the child’s mind-brain of troubling storylines or scripts soaked in glamorized violence.
In 2008, the NIH published a review article on media’s impact on children. Reviewing 1800 articles, the NIH suggests a causal link between our children’s media immersion and many troubling pediatric trends: sinking academic performance, overeating and obesity, a spiking appetite for alcohol and illegal drugs, and rises in teen sexuality and violence.
Yet the debate over the relative harm or benefit that the media causes our children is ongoing. The recent decision of the Supreme Court to strike down a California law banning the sale of violent video games clarified that parents are on their own in deciding what media was safe for their youth. It also pointed out how heated and political the debate has become. What’s at stake here are First Amendment rights and profit margins of major international conglomerates.
The case histories in my upcoming book, When the Media is the Parent, fill a gap in the social science literature about how the media enters the inner lives of our children and affects them deeply. It also underscores an unstated point: The media has become the parent in too many American households. How does this work? When parents unthinkingly hand over their children to the media for distraction and babysitting, the media obligingly steps in. It seemingly sets out to entertain but in truth elbows aside the parent in terms of role modeling, value development, and storytelling, traditionally the domain of actual parents. Stay tuned for my next blog in which I will share the guidelines I have developed throughout my years as a child psychiatrist for influencing your children in healthier ways.