Media and Children

Studies Show Need for Discernment

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, JAN. 25, 2009 ( Media can be a positive influence in the lives of children and adolescents, but care is needed to avoid the negative side effects. This is the conclusion of a series of 10 short papers just released by the journal Children and Electronic Media.

The papers are summaries of research carried out by The Future of Children, which is a collaboration of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University and the Brookings Institution that promotes policies and programs regarding children.

That media does affect behavior is certainly something that advertisers believe. The paper titled “Marketing and Media” noted that in 2003, American teenagers in the 12- to 17-year-old bracket spent $112.5 billion. In 2004, total U.S. marketing expenditures were estimated at some $15 billion to target products to children.

Television is still the most important medium for advertising to children, with children viewing approximately 40,000 advertisements per year on television.

Taking advantage of the fact that online marketing to children is far less regulated than television, however, the study noted that advertisers are moving to the Internet. Methods include embedding ads in games and using online chat forums to promote products.

Marketers have also developed tracking software that, in one example cited in the paper, allows children to transfer music from the Web, but also sends back information to the provider about the music preferences of each user.


One of the longstanding concerns regarding children and the media is over the issue of violence. The paper concluded that when children view media violence, they often act aggressively, experience fear, develop unrealistic perceptions concerning the violence that exists in the real world, or develop less advanced moral strategies.

These conclusions, the paper points out, are based on hundreds of studies made on the subject of the impact of media violence on children.

The paper commented that heavy viewers of television violence are affected in their capacity to reason morally. Such children are more likely to judge a hypothetical use of force as morally correct. In general these children displayed less advanced moral reasoning strategies.

It’s not just television that brings youth into contact with violence, as many video games graphically portray violent activities. “The most popular video games played by youth contain violence, and these violent games have been linked to a host of aggression-related cognitive, emotional and behavioral outcomes,” the paper observed.

Other negative effects

Violence isn’t the only worrying aspect of media usage. A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics found a link between television and sexual activity, reported the Washington Post on Nov. 3. The researchers tracked more than 700 12- to 17-year-olds for three years.

If found that teens who watch a lot of television featuring flirting, discussion of sex and sex scenes are much more likely than their peers to get pregnant or get a partner pregnant.

“Sexual content on television has doubled in the last few years, especially during the period of our research,” said the lead researcher Anita Chandra, according to the Washington Post.

Another article from the Washington Post, dated Dec. 2, reported that researchers from the National Institutes of Health and Yale University found strong connections between media exposure and problems such as childhood obesity and tobacco use.

The researchers collated the results of 173 studies and summarized the results. Approximately 80% of the studies showed a link between a negative health outcome and media hours or content, the Washington Post reported.

The study also said that the average modern child spends a total of nearly 45 hours a week using various forms of media, including television, movies, magazines, music, Internet and video games.

Video games can also be addictive for some adolescents. An extreme case was that of Canadian teen Brandon Crisp whose parents became so concerned over the amount of time he was spending on this that they prohibited any further use, the Globe and Mail newspaper reported Oct. 22.

Rather than give up his gaming, Brandon ran away from home on Oct. 12. He was subsequently found dead in the woods, apparently after falling from a tree.

The Globe and Mail said that concern over such obsessive use of Internet and video games led to the establishment in 2008 of the Center for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, designed to treat adolescents addicted to gambling, the Internet and video games.

“Technology has hit us like a bomb; the rapidity with which technology is advancing, we can’t even describe it from a research perspective,” said Cris Rowen, a pediatric occupational therapist and sensory specialist in Sechelt, British Columbia, to the Globe and Mail.

New developments

One of the papers looked at the topic of teens and the Internet. Instant messaging, social networking sites, video sharing, and multiplayer online games, are just some of the ways in which adolescents are online.

So far there is limited research on the effects of these various new forms of interaction have on teens, the paper admitted. Nevertheless, there is concern over cyberbullying and online harassment. Moreover, in many cases the victims of such bullying do not know the identity of their aggressor, making it more difficult to stop this harassment.

An article published Dec. 18 by the Wall Street Journal reported that a study of 3,767 middle schoolers published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that 11% reported being bullied on the Web recently. Another 7% said they had been bullied and admitted they had harassed others.

One recent case saw a mother from Missouri on trial for her part in a bullying that resulted in a 13-year-old girl committing suicide, reported the Associated Press, Nov. 28.

A federal jury could not reach a verdict on the main charge of conspiracy against Lori Drew, and she was found guilty of three misdemeanor charges.

In the trial, prosecutors said Drew and two others created a fictitious 16-year-old boy on MySpace and sent flirtatious messages from him to teenage neighbor Megan Meier. The boy then dumped Megan and insulted her, after which Megan hanged herself.

While most sites are aware of such problems the sheer volume of material makes it difficult to effectively monitor what is going on. According to the Wall Street Journal article, YouTube gets 13 hours of new video every minute.


One of the papers published by Children and Electronic Media, titled “Parenting in a Media-Saturated World,” commented that parents face a difficult task in regulating their children’s media use. It’s not just a question of preventing kids using the media because there are positive aspects, such as educational television programs, the paper continued. It also noted that marketing campaigns can promote healthy behavior among teens.

Even video games can have positive effects. Studies have found that playing video games can enhance visual awareness and increase capacity for processing information.

The paper did, however, point out that the use of educational television for infants and toddlers is questionable. Research suggests that under the age of three, children learn much more effectively from real-life examples than they do from video demonstrations.

“Be aware and be involved,” was the paper’s recommendation. Awareness includes understanding the various forms of media and types of content that your children are using. Involvement means monitoring the type of media being used by children, and also the amount of time being devoted to media use by children.

The paper also urged parents to put pressure on the media industry to develop better content, more accurate ratings systems, and to cut back on inappropriate advertisi
ng. No doubt these measures could help, but more than ever parents have to take responsibility for helping their children develop healthy media habits.

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