Resources and discussion for parents, teachers and young people navigating the evolving landscape of the digital world.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Impact of Media on our Children

Dimitri Christakis
Seattle Children's Hospital
Media Matters: What Parents Need to Know
Dimitri A. Christakis, MD, MPH
George Adkins Professor of Pediatrics, UW
Director, Center for Child Health, Behavior & Development @ Seattle Children's Research Institute
Attending Pediatrician @ Seattle Children's Hospital

Spring Break was a welcome interruption to the work flow around here, but it's time to get back to business! March 23rd I attended Dr. Christakis' lecture referenced above at South Puget Sound Community College in Olympia. Though I can't write by hand faster than I can type, I wrote as many notes as I could on some borrowed paper balanced on my knee. This was a fascinating lecture, on a topic near and dear to my heart. Though much of the content was focused on early childhood and predominantly the influence of television, "media" comes in many forms, and I think that much of what was presented will only be exaggerated when we add all forms (besides television) to the mix. So here are my notes, the things I thought worthy of writing down to share. It's going to be presented here as a bullet list of highlights and quotes, and as I read through my own notes, I realize that they are not nearly complete and there are many holes. Some of these can be filled by the links I've added to journals, studies, articles, and the doctor's bio and book. If you have further questions about a particular topic, please leave a comment!

3 things we should get out of the presentation:
  1. Media is a real and powerful influence
  2. Media should be a tool, not a crutch
  3. Don't feel bad or guilty about using it, but use it wisely
Other facts and statistics to consider:
  • in 1950, there were 85 children's programs on television per week, 40% of which had NO ADVERTISEMENTS (can you imagine?)
  • by 1956, 75% of households had a television
  • today, 30-50% of preschoolers have TVs in their bedrooms
  • 1959 - 25 prime time kid shows per week
  • 1960 - rise of Saturday morning cartoons
  • 1970 - 75% of all programming is now on the weekends
  • Childhood has been "technologized" - in 1970 kids started watching TV around the age of 4, today it is at 4 months of age
  • "Media can have a profound impact, both good and bad."
  • the brain TRIPLES in size from birth to 2 years (how does exposure to media at early ages affect this development? Dr. Christakis is known for his studies on Baby Einstein videos and their detrimental affect on language acquisition)
  • ADHD currently affects 10% of US children
  • though ADHD certainly has a genetic component, Dr. Christakis' team conducted research based on the following hypothesis: preconditioning the mind to expect high levels of stimulation at early ages will lead to inattention in later life. Evidence supports this hypothesis.
  • boys are more affected by violence on TV than girls are
  • 100% of G-rated animated films contain violence
  • "All television is educational television...the question is, what is it teaching?"
  • TEENS: higher functioning is the last area of the brain to develop
  • planning, impulse control, and judgment are not developed yet
  • teens rely on the emotional rather than rational part of their brains
  • sexual scenes on TV have doubled since 1998
  • TV provides teens "scripts" for language and behavior. 50% of 10-13 year olds think that alcohol commercials depict real life
  • Develop a strategic plan: what do you want to get from media? What do you NOT want to get?
So this is what I wrote down amidst charts and graphs, video clips of Mr. Rogers and SpongeBob Squarepants, clever cartoons, and clever rats and mice exposed to media in the lab. My notes clearly attest that I'm spectacularly bad at multitasking (in this case, listening and writing at the same time), particularly when the content is moving quickly. So what to make of it all? Well, the quote in red above gets to the heart of the matter. Be aware of what your children are watching or where they are spending their time online. Watch television with them, so you have the opportunity to process what they are seeing, what messages they receive, how advertising is targeted at them, how television depicts violence, sex, relationships and conflict resolution.

Though Dr. Christakis didn't mention it, I would like to point you to Common Sense Media, a site that allows you to look up reviews and ratings for popular television shows, books, movies, music, apps, websites and video games.

Common Sense Media is dedicated to improving the lives of kids and families by providing the trustworthy information, education, and independent voice they need to thrive in a world of media and technology.

We exist because our nation's children spend more time with media and digital activities than they do with their families or in school, which profoundly impacts their social, emotional, and physical development . As a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization, we provide trustworthy information and tools, as well as an independent forum, so that families can have a choice and a voice about the media they consume.
What I like about Common Sense Media is that it doesn't just provide the ratings and reviews; it also provides "talking points" around which families can discuss these things at the dinner table. For example, here's one review for a popular Disney Channel show, recommended for kids age 9 and up:

This review of The Suite Life on Deck was written by Emily Ashby
Parents need to know that, like its popular parent series The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, this show is filled with content that's bound to entertain tweens but might leave parents rolling their eyes. The largely unsupervised teen characters engage in lots of mischief, discipline is virtually nonexistent, and no problem arises that can't be solved by the time the credits roll. One of the twins is pretty flirty and makes mildly suggestive comments, while another main character constantly gloats over her family's wealth and uses money and expensive gifts to control her peers -- her manipulations are played for laughs, of course, but they're still grating. Tween fans may need to be reminded that little of what they're seeing is relatable to most people's reality.
As a parent who notices the unsupervised teens and nonexistent discipline, I definitely fall into the eye-rolling category. Attached to the review, however, is this:
Talk to your kids about the media in their life. We have more tools and tips that can help
  • Families can talk about how real life differs from Zack and Cody's world. How is their lifestyle like a fantasy? Do they ever seem affected by anything serious -- like money, illness, or family struggles?
  • Kids: Do you ever worry about those things? Is there any part of Zack and Cody's life that you can relate to?
  • Tweens: Do you think you'd enjoy living in another country? If so, where would you go?
Television provides so many opportunities for conversation, sharing and learning. If our kids are watching it on their own, we are missing those opportunities.

More to come on this topic!

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