Mass Media Exposure

Imagine this.

Someone approaches you and says, "Hey. ... I want to spend the next five months doing nothing but watching television, surfing the Net and listening to music."

What would you say in return?

You might be shocked by a media overload of such unusal proportions. Five months? That's an awfully long time. Who would want to spend a whole five months like that?

You would wonder, what sort of impact could this amount of media time have on a person.

But while you are correct to ask these questions, you would be wrong to think that the scenario above is not possible. Adults and teens will spend nearly five months (3,518 hours) next year watching television, surfing the Internet, reading daily newspapers and listening to personal music devices, according to the 2007 U.S. Census Bureau's Statistical Abstract of the United States, released today.

And the census data doesn't just tally averages such as average amount of television watched in a week or average daily hours on the Internet -- it takes these numbers and puts them into greater perspective. Those weekly and daily averages total to five solid months of media exposure, according to the report.

"When we talk about time spent with media, we usually talk about weekly average patterns. The census bureau report drives home how it stacks up," said Amy Jordan, director of Media and the Developing Mind Sector of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.

"We really need to start recognizing how the media is interwoven tightly into the fabric of our daily life," she said.

The report raises concerns about how this increasing amount of time spent with media is affecting us -- and specifically, how it is affecting youth. Heavy media exposure could have long-term effects on our bodies and brains that we don't realize.

"As a society, our primary concern should be protecting children so that they have an opportunity for proper development," Jordan said. "For kids, using the media has evolved into a normal process, but we don't know what it is doing to their cognitive abilities over the long run."

"I can't emphasize enough the kind of sea change that is taking place in terms of when children are starting to use the media and their sophistication with the media," she said. "Most are exposed to media from the time they wear diapers."

While television is not the only media that the census report talked about, experts agree that it is one of our biggest and most time-consuming problems.

"Time spent on the media is time we are not spending with loved ones, helping kids with homework, volunteering in one's community or doing any of the wonderful things that bring meaning to life," said Dr. Jason Eberhart-Phillips, Health Officer for El Dorado County in California.

Experts estimate that there are more than 100 million TV-homes in the country. The average adult spends four hours everyday watching TV. The average youth 8 to 18 years old spends almost seven hours every day plugged in to the media. Nearly half of elementary school children and more than 60 percent of adolescents have television sets in their bedrooms.

Children spend more time watching television than in any other activity except sleep, experts say.

It seems that the public needs to shift its attenton to the amount of time that kids and adults spend with the media and not focus on content alone. The research community has focused much of its time on content -- language, sex and drug use -- on television.

"There is a great deal of data on how content impacts children, their behavior and how they look at themselves and others," said Robert Kesten, the Executive Director of the Center for Screen-Time Awareness in Washington DC. "What is even more important is how much time they spend with all these gadgets."

"It is clear that the amount of time is more important than what they watch....since the negative impacts show up consistently no matter what they watch," he said. "Increased violence and bullying, obesity and overweight, antisocial behaviors, smoking, drinking and risky sexual behaviors are more common in those who spend a good deal of time in front of a screen."

Whatever cautions we might draw from the census report, the statistics cannot be studied in a vacuum.

"We need to resist painting a picture of our media use as a nation with too broad a brush," said Vicky Rideout the vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation. Rideout suggests that the statistics could overestimate the time that people spend with the media.

Rideout said it isn't clear if the census report takes into account the "multi-tasking" that is often done with media. Multi-tasking is, like many of us know, plugging into several media outlets at the same time -- such as listening to music while playing video games or surfing the Internet while watching television.

For example, if you watch TV for an hour while also listening to music and checking your e-mail, that only amounts to one hour of time spent -- but the census might have counted each media separately, for an inflated total of three hours.

Rideout also points out, all media isn't bad. Some of it is intellectually or culturally enriching, even.

"Media can have a negative or a positive impact on us. Internet can be a great source for health information, so it is too simplistic to say that all this is bad," she said. "But when anything occupies so much time, it deserves attention."

America's media obsession isn't only time consuming, it's becoming a public health problem. Recent reports have blamed a piece of America's obesity problem on too much time spent in front of the television.

"Can it be any surprise that more than half of American adults are now overweight, and nearly one-third are clinically obese?" Eberhart-Phillips said. "Television viewing is our No. 1 cause of physical inactivity, and physical inactivity is now our No. 2 preventable cause of death, behind smoking."

Other researchers have noted further trends associated with media use.

"The number of hours of entertainment children take part in during the week had the greatest effect on their grades [of all the things studied]," said Dr. Iman Sharif, associate professor of Clinical Pediatrics and associate director of the Social Pediatrics Program at the Children's Hospital at Montefiore, Bronx, N.Y.

"Children who watched television during the week and were allowed to watch R-rated movies had the worst school performance," she said.

The best predictor of whether a child will be a heavy user of media is whether the child's parents are heavy media users, so parents should model healthy media behaviors for their children, Sharif said.

"Parents are using television and other media more and more as baby-sitters because it is so convenient and cheap," Kesten said. "But it is really one of the worst things a parent can do. This teaches the child early on that human contact is just not that important.... that it is better to be inactive, docile and numb, than to be active and responsive."

Although the media junkie trend might seem, well, trendy, it's something that parents and communities should stand against, experts suggest.

"It seems to me that is worth it," Kesten said.

Links to use: