Media Overexposure Related to Many Health Problems
> 12/3/2008 6:45:49 PM

No parent, guardian or school system aspires to raise a horde of “couch potatoes”, and a new academic review of 173 media-centered behavioral health studies tells us exactly why. Long-held truths now boast clinical backing as researchers at the National Institute of Health, sponsored by the non-profit advocacy group Common Sense Media, examined more than three decades of data to state with certainty that excessive media exposure contributes to multiple health issues in children, adolescents and young adults. Beyond the physical complications born of a sedentary lifestyle, kids who spend the most time in media saturation mode are also more likely to be overweight, abuse tobacco, drugs and alcohol and engage in early, potentially dangerous sexual behaviors.

The report aimed to examine the relationship between media exposure and seven independent variables: obesity, tobacco use, alcohol use, drug use, low academic performance, sexual behavior and ADHD. While the “media” considered included TV, movies, video games, magazines and music, the major area of concern is obviously kids staring at a screen. According to the stats gathered by the study, American children spend an average of 45 hours each week with these “media” sources – that’s 50% more time than they spend in school and almost 3 times as many hours as they spend with their parents.

80% of the studies in question (selected from 28 years of cumulative research) found a negative correlation between media saturation and later health outcomes. The number of studies with positive findings: 7 of 173. The strongest statistical correlation unsurprisingly concerned screen time and obesity. Nearly 90% of the studies found that kids who spend more time in front of a television or computer screen are considerably more likely to be overweight. The media/smoking link, found to be “statistically significant” in 88% of the studies, is also understandable. The more often kids see someone smoking onscreen, the more open they are to the idea of doing it themselves. The same equation holds true for drinking and sex. The only conclusions we’d call even remotely unexpected were a single study linking frequent visits to certain kinds of websites with increased academic performance and a lower-than-expected correlation between media exposure and ADHD throughout the studies. So the age-old association between TV and attention-deficit disorders looks a bit weaker today. And millions of parents would almost certainly like to see that list of educational websites. 

The issue applies to mental health concerns as well: another very recently released study found that the single variable most predictably dividing “happy” and “unhappy” survey subjects is the amount of television they watch. The precise reasoning behind this finding remains unclear, but the chicken-egg issue will clearly be considered in future studies: does excessive TV make one less happy, or are dissatisfied individuals simply more likely to watch excessive amounts of TV? The Common Sense Media study’s results point decisively toward the former conclusion but, as in all academic pursuits, further research is required. The larger conclusion, presented as simply as possible: the more time kids spend watching TV, playing video games and surfing the internet, the more likely they are to suffer from nearly every major preventable health condition. And the less successful they will be academically. This issue holds sway in the lives of nearly every American child. Violence and sexuality were once the most prominent concerns spawned by the TV and internet habits of American kids. But we should probably be more concerned with quantity than quality in this case.  

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