Youthful Exposure to Old, New Media Holds Promise and Peril

Children and teenagers spend more than one-fourth of every day using media such as television, video games, computers and cell phones, according to a new survey of past research that identified both risks and potential benefits for America's youth.

Youngsters spend more than seven hours per day using media, on average. The majority have a TV in their bedroom as well as access to a computer, the Internet, video-games and a cell phone, according the March 1 online report in Pediatrics.

This exposure to the media can make children more prone to violence, early and unprotected sexual activity, alcohol and tobacco consumption, obesity, attention deficit disorder and possibly poor performance in school, the study found.

On the other hand, media can serve as a powerful communication and educational tool for conveying and encouraging healthy attitudes and behaviors.

"Studies have shown that media can provide information about safe health practices and can foster social connectedness," Dr. Victor C. Strasburger of the University of New Mexico and colleagues concluded.

"However, recent evidence raises concerns about media's effects on aggression, sexual behavior, substance use, disordered eating, and academic difficulties."

Strasburger and colleagues reviewed research on the influence of media on youth over the past 50 years, distilling the primary findings of how youth consume "old media" (television, movies, magazines) and "new media" (Internet, video games, cell phones), and how this changes their behaviors and beliefs.

Among the findings of the review:

By age 18, the average adolescent will have seen an estimated 200,000 acts of violence on television alone, and depictions of violence are prevalent in video games. There is a significant connection between exposure to violence in media and real-life violent behavior.

Youth exposed to sexual content are at modestly higher risk for early sexual behavior and unplanned pregnancy, particularly if exposed to pornography.

More than $22 billion is spent each year marketing and advertising tobacco, alcohol and prescription drugs in the United States. Portrayals of drug use, particularly tobacco smoking, are prevalent in both old and new media. Childrens' exposure to smoking in movies predicts the likelihood that they will start smoking within eight years.

Media use clearly contributes to childhood obesity, but exactly how is unclear. Possible culprits include marketing of junk food and fast food and a tendency to eat while viewing media.

Studies have linked television viewing in early childhood with later development of attention-deficit disorder (ADD) during the early school years, but experts disagree about the nature of this connection.

Media can teach children and teenagers anti-violence attitudes, empathy, tolerance toward people of other races and ethnicity and respect for their elders.

Video games have been used successfully to encourage children to comply with chemotherapy regimes.

Online communication, particularly with friends, can help adolescents become more socially connected and thus improve their well-being, though solitary Web-surfing and chatting in public (with strangers) can have negative effects on social connectedness.

Strasburger and colleagues concluded that parents should play a role in their children's' media consumption. Their suggestions included:

Limiting the amount of time spent using media to less than 1 or 2 hours per for children older than 2 and avoiding screen time altogether for children younger than 2.

Keeping media devices out of youths' bedrooms.

Watching media with their children and discussing the content.

They also recommended the pediatricians and other doctors who see children and teenagers should counsel parents to limit youth media exposure.

"During the past 50 years, thousands of research studies have revealed that the media can be a powerful teacher of children and adolescents and have a profound impact on their health," they concluded.

"To date, too little has been done by parents, health care practitioners, schools, the entertainment industry, or the government to protect children and adolescents from harmful media effects and to maximize the powerfully prosocial aspects of modern media. More research is needed, but sufficient data exist to warrant both concern and increased action."