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Kids and Mass Media

How Mass Media Competes For Kids' Time At The Expense Of Their Well Being

Gone are the days of children coming home from school, eating homemade chocolate chip cookies and then going outside to play with their friends until it's time to do homework. Today, older children are often home alone after school. As a result, they sometimes are tempted to spend their time being entertained with video games, watching television, downloading music and chatting on the Internet instead of doing their homework and more active leisure activities. These temptations are all competing for children's time at the expense of their education, health and well being.

Childhood obesity, school violence, ADHD and poor reading and math skills can all be tied to too much mass media play in childhood. Too many children are neglecting schoolwork and exercise in favor of eating chips in front of the TV. Fast-paced video games and television shows have shortened children's attention spans. Recreational reading is almost nonexistent. Even worse, the violence children see on TV is being replayed in the schools, and basic reading and math skills are lagging way behind.

Too Much Media Exposure

Children spend more than 38 hours per week being entertained by the mass media – almost four times the amount of time they spend on schoolwork. As a result, academics are suffering. According to research and standardized test scores, American students are struggling to read at proficient levels, and most recreational reading has stopped. Math skills are also lagging. Once children fall behind with basic academic skills, they have a hard time catching up. This will have long-term ramifications on them, as the future will bring about more advanced jobs and fewer qualified people to fill them. These jobs include medical personnel, engineers, college professors and other highly educated or technical professions.

Overexposure to television starts at an early age. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no TV for children younger than age 2, and no more than two hours per day of high-quality programming for older children. The truth is that many children watch much more than the recommended guidelines.

The Effects of Excess

Since television entered the home in the 1950s, violence in the media and in the classroom has skyrocketed. Public school teachers often spend more time dealing with discipline issues than teaching due to student violence and bad behavior. Could mass media be the reason? Television programs are full of sexually explicit content and violence, as are many music videos and video games. The reason is that "violence and sex sells." But repeated exposure to violent media content can have drastic repercussions. The television news is full of stories of kids re-creating violent acts they saw on TV.

In addition to violent behavior, excessive media consumption can lead to other problems. ADHD, or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, is on the rise today, and too much television viewing could be a culprit. A team of researchers headed by Dr. Dimitri Christakis at the Children's Hospital in Seattle found that television exposure at age 1 to 3 leads to attention problems by age 7. Research published in the journal Pediatrics indicates that every hour of watching TV increases children's odds of having attention problems by about 10 percent (Elias, 2004). Fast television and scene changing may contribute to shortened attention spans among children.

This creates problems with slower-paced tasks, especially reading. This shortened attention span, often accompanied by behavioral problems, frequently results in children either being placed in special education classes or being medically treated.

Obesity is another side effect of television. Sixty-four percent of Americans are overweight or obese, including nine million children. Eating habits developed in childhood continue through a lifetime. The top triangle of the USDA's food pyramid displays the foods that are recommended to be used sparingly. These foods are the ones that are most heavily advertised on television, radio and in print. They are also heavily marketed toward children. For example, children are exposed to 150 to 200 hours worth of television commercials a year, many of them advertisements for "junk" food and fast food. A study conducted in December of 2003 reported in the journal Pediatrics that the more television children watch, the fewer fruits and vegetables they eat, probably because the advertising they see leaves them craving junk food instead.

The good news is that parents can minimize the impact mass media has on their children by taking a few simple steps.

  • Enforce studying before play. Pick a consistent "study time" each afternoon or evening where your kids must turn off all media and study. They should devote at least 20 minutes for each subject they have difficulty with, but as a bare minimum they should spend 20 minutes each on reading and math. If they don't have assigned homework, assign them some yourself. Set a kitchen timer, and when the timer goes off, switch subjects and reset the timer. This rule can be expanded to include music practice, practicing sport drills or studying a foreign language. After their study time is over, they can play.
  • Limit video games. If you don't have a video game system in your home yet, don't buy one. If you have one and it breaks, don't fix it. While many parents believe that playing video games improves eye-hand coordination, no research proves it. Playing a game of ping-pong or playing the piano accomplishes the same thing. Instead of having a video game system in your home, limit video game playing to arcades only. Have your children save their allowance, or reward them with weekly trips for good behavior or extra time spent reading. You have the added benefit of controlling which games they play and setting a time limit.
  • Monitor computer usage. Computers have been a blessing and a burden in most American homes. They've opened doors to knowledge, but the Internet can be a dangerous place for kids. If at all possible, have your home computer in a public space in your home. Children will be less likely to venture into dangerous online territory if they know you can look over their shoulder at any time. Also, take advantage of an ISP's protection package. Some programs can restrict access to questionable sites, and others can send parents monitoring reports of their children's Internet usage. You should monitor their usage yourself by checking your computer's history file.
  • Limit television viewing. The best way to limit your children's exposure to televised violence is to turn off the television. Another option is the V chip. Limit television to one public room in the house. Just as with computers, this will give you more control over the content they're exposed to. If you have cable, ask your cable company to block inappropriate stations. You can even buy some children's television remotes that are only programmed with the channels you specify.
  • Substitute other activities. Another way of limiting media playtime is to substitute other activities for your kids. Encourage them to play outside with their friends. Take a walk around the block together. Help them find a hobby they enjoy that doesn't require electricity or batteries. Have them help you fix a healthy dinner. Make weekly outings to the library to check out books.

While not all the ills of children today can be blamed on the mass media, it is something that parents should be more aware of. Take some steps today to limit the amount of exposure your children are getting. Your kids might not be too thrilled with the limits you set, but they'll adjust. Model the behavior you want your kids to exemplify. Read for pleasure, don't play video games with your kids and don't watch trashy or violent TV shows with your kids around. The sacrifices you and your kids make today will bring big rewards in the years to come.

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