Mixed Messages on Children and Media
> 5/19/2006 11:48:23 AM

Do hours in front of a television or computer screen deaden a child's mental faculties, or does this constant influx of multi-media material better prepare them to process and analyze information? Does limiting a child's exposure to electronic media help alleviate symptoms of passivity and encourage more creative pursuits, or will such well-meaning discipline lead to kids who are out of the tech loop and unable to compete in tomorrow's marketplace? Once again we find health professionals, parents, and researchers speculating about the effects of increasingly prevalent multi-media stimuli on children, their debates producing a plethora of new topics for conversation but, predictably, no overarching conclusions. This week's National Institutes of Health forum passed over the same decades-old debates about how much TV is too much for young kids while also raising questions about relatively new issues like children's internet and video game habits.

It's a long established fact that, in America as well as many other parts of the world, television provides a backdrop for growing up, and children younger than twelve watch an average of four hours of TV a day. Fears about television's effects on its younger viewers have surfaced throughout its history, with most studies suggesting that, though excessive viewing leads to downturns in reading habits and academic performance, moderated amounts of TV time actually heighten aptitude in many cases, improving cognitive and communicative skills. Some of the most-studied programs are those specifically designed to help kids learn as well as entertain them, and shows like "Sesame Street" and "Blue's Clues" continue to recieve high marks for their positive contributions to public education.

Many are also hesitant to use television as a singular scapegoat, wondering how many of the frequently cited side effects of viewing are related to the family situations that allow children to spend so much time in front of a screen. For example, some studies state that children who watch higher-than-average amounts of TV are more likely to bully other kids, but this finding is closely related to the fact that children who watch so much TV are probably not getting the attention they need from family and peers. Countless commentaries, including those here at Anxiety, Addiction and Depression Treatments, have tackled the issue of televised violence, drawing an uneven but disturbing connection between the amount of violence a child sees and the likelihood that he or she will commit violent acts in the future.

New media, particularly the internet, adds another dimension to this discussion. While many worry about easy access to offensive material and a majority believe that networking sites like MySpace are not safe for preteens, parents in general do not view interactive electronic media in a negative light, believing it to be an invaluable, if insufficiently regulated, resource. The fact is that politicians, parents and health experts debated the relative worth and potential effects of content in literature, film, comic books, advertising, and pop music long before televisions or computers. This issue is hardly new, and it will no doubt continue to resurface with increasing regularity in public discussion as new media forms assert their presence across our cultural landscape.

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