Violence in the Media Does Matter

“A thousand studies over the past 40 years have shown that viewing violence in the media changes children’s behavior,” said Michael Rich, MD, Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Harvard Medical School aka the Mediatrician.

Dr. Rich who founded and serves as the Director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital, Boston reports that viewing violence in the media causes:
1) increased feelings of fear and anxiety in the viewer,
2) desensitizes the viewer, particularly to conflict resolution methods other than violence, and
3) increases the aggressive behavior of the viewer.

A compelling demonstration of the latter was a video taken by hidden camera of toddlers dancing, singing, and shaking maracas after watching a Barney cartoon, and the same toddlers doing karate kicks and tackles on each other after watching a Power Rangers cartoon. (Yes, the girls too.)

Other tidbits that may comfort, or not, us parents and grandparents who wonder about the opportunities and pitfalls of current electronic media include:

1)    NO significant learning occurs from viewing a screen until the child is 30 months old. Baby Einstein videos are entertaining, amusing, and hold the child’s attention, but the child under 2 ½ is NOT getting an academic head start on KG. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no TV viewing under the age of 2 years., primarily because it substitutes for “more interactive activities that promote brain development”; ie. free play and social interactions.

2)    53% of 2-4 year olds use computers. 39% of 2-4 year olds have Apps and know how to use them on smartphones and iPads.

3)    The reason that the kids are so much better at operating the iPads, iPhones, and other smartphones is that these devices are designed to be intuitive. Our adult knowledge retards our intuition. The kids, not burdened with pre-conceived frameworks, enjoy a much faster learning curve. On the downside, the fact that my grandchildren can learn to use these devices so quickly is because the software is designed to be very intuitive and NOT because my offspring are “above average.”  Dr. Rich calls kids “Digital Natives” while we adults are “Digital Immigrants.”

4)    After 3 years of age ALL media is educational. Studies show that toddlers learn commercial logos, retain the image, and are able to identify them in another context; ie. the grocery store or restaurant.

5)    Sesame Street viewing between the ages of 3 and 5 is associated with better school performance and social skills compared to children who did not watch Sesame Street. The differences persist to the age of 17. One of the problems now is that the current demographic of Sesame Street viewers is from 18 months to 3 years of age.

6)    47% of 5-8 year olds have a TV in their bedroom. Studies show that the TV reduces the quantity and quality (flashing lights and changing sounds puts the sleeper “on alert”) of sleep and apparently doubles the risk of developing obesity.

What happens as the kids get older?

1)    The average use of electronic media by children ages 8-18 yrs is 7 ½ hours per day, and that study was done before the cell phone “explosion”.

2)    The average number of text messages for high school kids is 300-500 per DAY. Those messages have got to be short like “LOL”, “DIY”, or “PRW” , but they count as messages.

3)    Vewing sexual content in the media advances the first sexual experience by about 2 years.

4)    58% of high school kids who have experienced electronic cyberbullying have NOT revealed it to their parents because “they wouldn’t understand how it all works.”

5)    85% of teenagers take their cell phone to bed at night. They are never “not connected”. “You never know what people might be texting about you.”

What can you do?

Dr. Rich has some very “simple” and practical recommendations:

1)    Remove your child’s computer from his/her room and put it on the dining room table because it is now in a “public place” and the child will self-monitor his/her own use.

2)    Move the computers from the dining room table once each day and have a family meal, the single most important influence on children for learning good role models and avoidance of high-risk behavior.

3)    If you don’t want your child to use his/her device during meals or family gatherings PUT YOURS DOWN. “Kids hear about 1% of what we say, but see 100% of what we do.”

4)    Take the TV out of his/her bedroom, and set the rule that all cell phones rest (recharge) in the kitchen overnight.

5)    Increase free play outdoors. Being “Huck Finn with mud between his toes” may better prepare your child for successful problem solving in the modern world than time at video games. (Unless your child aspires to be an Israeli tank driver or a U.S. drone controller.)

1) PriMed Continuing Medical Education Conference, Boston, October 29, 2011

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