It is no secret that children today are exposed to an amazing amount of media. How concerned should parents be? A recent article published in the journal Pediatrics describes what's out there, how it is affecting our children, and how we can start reining in the power of the media.

The internet and other media can provide information, which may not be complete or accurate. They can shape attitudes towards risk by portraying dangerous behaviors in an unrealistically consequence-free manner.

A Massive Problem and Opportunity

Studies have shown that today's children and teens spend an average of seven or more hours per day attending to screens of one sort of another. They have much more than just TV to attract them. Seventy-one percent of teens, ages 12-17, have cell phones and 97% report that they play video games on some type of media device.

Here are a few of the negative ways media affect the health of our youth: The internet and other media can provide information, which may not be complete or accurate. They can shape attitudes towards risk by portraying dangerous behaviors in an unrealistically consequence-free manner. It can compete with adults for the role of advisors. It can normalize antisocial behaviors such as aggression, bullying, harassment, and lying. It can link children and teens to others who may not have their best interests at heart. And it can replace time spent in other more positive and healthful activities.

Our children often appear to be irretrievably enmeshed in a screen- and media-dominated world. And then there are the dangers of texting or phoning while driving.

But technology can disseminate positive as well as negative messages and media venues from websites to computer games can also be used to achieve positive goals.

What Research Tells Us About Media's Effects

What do we really know about the impact of media? Quite a bit, actually. Here is some of what research has found:

By 2005, two thirds of U.S. children had a TV set in their bedrooms. Research has shown that a child with a TV in his bedroom watches 1-2 more hours than his peers, is 30% more likely to be overweight, and twice as likely to smoke later in life. Additionally, these children engage in fewer hobbies, read less, and sleep less. Possibly most troubling, when a child has a TV set in the bedroom, his parents can't closely monitor either the content or amount of programming he is viewing.

By age 18 years, the average adolescent will have seen about 200,000 violent acts on TV alone. More than 90% of video games that are rated appropriate for children 10 years or older contain violence. Research has revealed a significant connection between exposure to media violence and the development of aggression. Children who repeatedly witness media violence have been shown to see violence as an appropriate means to resolve conflict.

When 1500 15- through 17-year-old internet users were interviewed, almost half reported that they had been exposed to online pornography in the year preceding the survey. Studies have shown that heavy exposure to sexual content in media is associated with more rapid progression of sexual activity among teens, including increased risk of both unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. As with violence, sex in the media is often portrayed as having no unwelcome consequences or risks, giving the teens an unrealistic assessment of their own vulnerabilities.

Alcohol, drug use, and cigarette smoking are frequently portrayed in media, but the negative health or behavioral consequences are often not shown. Substance use is often part of romance, adventure, or exciting risk-taking. Unfortunately, when the teen likes the characters and story, she is more likely to emulate the characters who smoke. Studies have shown that exposure to movie smoking in fifth through eighth grade predicts smoking initiation 1-8 years later.

The impact of screen- based information depends on the child's/teen's stage of development and how well developed her critical thinking and reasoning skills are.

Children and teens see between 4400-7600 advertisements for junk food and fast food on TV per year. It has been shown that such advertising impacts their food preferences and that the activity of watching TV itself fosters extra snacking.

The impact of screen-based information depends on the child's/teen's stage of development and how well developed her critical thinking and reasoning skills are. Younger viewers can't always separate fact from fiction, wishful thinking from reality, exaggeration from honesty, and acting from real life. It also has to do with the message being conveyed. Also important are the messages that television, film and the internet choose to promote.

A Medium for Modeling, But What's Being Modeled?
Teens often take cues for their own behaviors from on-screen role models who experience "lifelike" situations and challenges. On the positive side, they may copy what appear to be successful ways of responding to difficult situations including substance use, peer pressure, sexual activity, romance, and school and home difficulties. But the glamorized screen portrayals of risky behaviors (such as of sexual encounters or drinking or driving fast); hurtful peer interactions like teasing, bullying or leaving someone out; or parental conflict (spouse abuse, infidelity) can normalize socially unacceptable behaviors instead of identifying and promoting truly effective and safe responses.

The media also has a positive role to play in terms of educating teens, if they choose to do so. TV shows and movies can deliver health-based information meaningfully, in the context of the characters' experiences, giving them a very influential role to play. Also beneficial is the media's powerful role in educating and shaping teens' attitudes, including empathy and respect.

Talk to Friends, Not Strangers
Additionally, research has shown that when teens communicate with their friends on line, they can have an increased sense of social connectedness and well-being. However, this is not the case when the on-line connection is with strangers.

What Parents (and Others) Can Do

Parents and health care providers can help shape the place of media in the lives of our youth. So can members of media-based industries. Parents can start with a few basic strategies:

  1. Remove the TV and computer from the child's/teens' bedroom to allow for more careful surveillance over media time and content.
  2. Monitor and limit the number of hours a child spends in front of screens. Help the child engage in other pursuits including physical activity.
  3. Monitor media content and limit exposure to violence. Pay attention to ratings on movies, games, and videos, but consider watching some to get a clear understanding of what the child is seeing.
  4. Give teens feedback about what they are viewing on the screen. Help them interpret what they see and provide accurate information to counter the distortions.
  5. Talk with your children's physician about responding to media in your child's life.
  6. Talk to your school about educating the students to be more disciplined and critical users of screen-based media.

It's easy to criticize the media. But since it is not going to go away and has much to offer, it is most important for parents and teens to develop strategies to maximize the benefits and minimize the risks of the massive, diverse, and powerful inputs it offers.