Melissa DeVries, Ph.D.
With the end of the school year fast approaching we are all likely finalizing plans for how our children will spend their summer days, whether it be a day camp, travel or time at home with a parent or other caregiver. Whatever your family’s summer plans may be, it seems that the majority of us loosen up a bit during these summer months. The rush of the typical school morning is long forgotten, bed times creep later into the evening and a sense of relaxation sets in. With our children having more free time, it can be easy to reduce the amount of time spent in organized activity in lieu of more free-choice. Oftentimes, however, free choice can result in increased access to technology. Youth may spend more time watching TV, YouTube and movies, playing on game apps, browsing the Internet and social networking. While these activities can be fun for children, it’s important as parents to maintain an awareness of our children’s media and the impact of that access.
How much media content does the average child in America view?
A 2010 study noted that children aged 8 to 18 years watch an average of 4 hours of television and spend 1.5 hours playing video or computer games per day. Children will see an average of 2 gun-related violent acts for every hour of television they watch. As of a decade ago, 40% of the top grossing non-animated G- and PG-rated movies featured at least one character with a firearm and an average of 4.5 armed characters per film. Even current animated films and television often contain some intense scenes with aggressive, if not violent, acts among characters. Often pitched as slapstick humor and “jokes for adults that simply go over a child’s head,” children are exposed to violence, aggression and adult innuendos in animated features as well. Approximately two-thirds of E-rated video games contain intentional physical aggression.
In younger age groups it appears that 66% of children aged 6 months to 6 years watch television every day, averaging 2 hours per day. In children under the age of 2 years, an astounding 83% use some form of screen media on a typical day.
What do we know about the cognitive and behavioral impact of media on child development?
It is difficult for research to keep pace with the advancements in technology; however, years of research on children’s television viewing have produced impactful findings. According the existing research, consumption of violent media predicts increased aggressive behavior among youth because children imitate the scripts they see modeled by others. They can also become desensitized and condoning of violence, believe that the world is hostile, and lose empathy for victims. Longitudinal studies have revealed that 1st and 3rd graders who were heavy viewers of violent television content were three times more likely to be convicted of a violent crime by the time they were in their twenties. Admittedly, violent media is not the only culprit for future behavioral problems, but it does represent a substantial risk factor. Even mass media preys upon our survival instincts by stressing elements that trigger rapid, irrational fear responses through fast paced content, sales pitches that demand immediate response, and by presenting rare violent events as far more commonplace. While younger children may be more frightened by fantasy material, older children are often more disturbed by such realistic content, including the news.
Violent content aside, even heavily sanitized media access can have unforeseen consequences. Research has argued that having non-stop access to media content through handheld devices and personal computers produces a high number of irrelevant distractions and demands to attempt to multitask. This creates too much to pay attention to and in turn, can degrade our memory for important information. For example, reading is an activity that offers few distractions. It requires intense focus for sustained periods of time, imagination and memory. In contrast, TV and other media content, often demand little imagination, and require fragmented attention and frequent, rapid task switching. Distraction is the norm, thus inhibiting memory and development of sustained attention. Children who watch more “pure entertainment” media (i.e., no educational value) demonstrate lower academic performance, even after controlling for other factors. Television viewing at young ages (under 2 years) can prohibit language development because young children, including preschoolers, need responsive, engaging, stimulating interaction with their surroundings including exposure to language and sounds. They learn through interactions with adults who respond to their actions in real-time, and free and creative play. They need to explore the world and manipulate objects around them, accompanied by guidance, structure, support, praise, attention and positive feedback from adults and peers. Children younger than 5 years old who watch TV spend less time in creative play and less time interacting with parents and siblings, which extends beyond the time they are in front of the screen. TV viewing among children younger than 3 years has been correlated with irregular sleep schedules.
Pre-teens who use social media have been found to value fame more than kindness and community involvement. Video game play late at night reduces the quality of sleep. Periods of downtime (i.e., without the constant demands of Tweets, texts, and Facebook status updates) are necessary for consolidation of learning, which is virtually impossible for youth who have 24-hour access to their smart phones. Other risks of technology use may include reduced empathy and increased stress. Studies have even shown abnormalities in portions of white matter responsible for decision making in brains of adolescents who were “preoccupied” by internet usage (defined as those adolescents who had repeatedly attempted to control their use without success, resulting in restlessness, moodiness, irritability and depression). Overall, studies have shown that youth who spend more than 2 hours per day watching TV or using computers are at increased risk of psychological difficulties.
Make an Informed Decision
Technology is so pervasive in our day-to-day lives that it may be difficult, or even unnecessary to go totally “screen-free” for the summer. Many sources argue about the immense benefits of raising tech-savvy children in that they can keep up as adults in the modern world. Thus, I frequently encourage parents to consider technology like a dessert, “okay in moderation.” While some media access is acceptable, if not beneficial, the most powerful protective factor against all the potentially negative effects is parental monitoring. Let’s pay attention to what our children access, how much time is spent with media and encourage them to have a balanced diet of activities for the summer (and beyond).
Helpful Resources to Monitor Your Children’s Access to Media Content
www.imdb.com (database that contains a detailed parent guide for content of movies, television series and video games. Each instance of sex/nudity, violence/gore, profanity, alcohol/drugs/smoking, and frightening/intense scenes is identified).
Consider adopting a media diet:
Screen Time Article References: