Sure, kids love watching TV, instant messaging, listening to iPods, and playing video games. But in today's digital world, it's important to recognize that these activities, while a natural part of living, have an effect on children's health. The studies are clear: Media consumption without limits or guidelines can have a negative impact on kids' physical, mental, and social well-being.
The number of obese children has doubled in the last 10 years. It's no coincidence considering that kids ages 8 to 18 spend an average of 44.5 hours a week engaged with media — compared to only 8.75 hours engaged in physical activity. Studies have even shown that for every hour kids spend watching TV, their chance of being obese jumps 6 percent (31 percent if the TV is in the bedroom). Many studies also link obesity to junk food commercials that bombard kids.
Obesity isn't the only media-related health issue. A proven correlation exists between media exposure and the onset of smoking and drinking. Watching a lot of sexual content on TV and listening to sexually explicit music lyrics increase the chances that a teen will have sex at an earlier age. Studies also show that when kids are exposed to media full of aggression and violence, it can increase antisocial and bullying behavior and decrease their empathy for victims of violence. The link is so clear that the American Academy of Pediatrics says that "playing violent video games leads to adolescent violence like smoking leads to lung cancer."
Managing Media and Messages
The media messages and images that children receive through TV, movies, video games, the internet, music, and cell phones shape their values and behavior. But this powerful effect cuts both ways: media's impact can be healthy or unhealthy — it's up to you to set the limits and guidelines required to ensure that media is a positive influence in your child's life. What children put in their brains is as important as what goes in their bodies. These strategies can help you strike a balance:
- Set time limits. Studies show that the less time kids spend in front of the screen, the less likely they are to be obese. Create a balanced schedule of how much media your child may consume and when. Common Sense Media recommends no more than one to two hours of screen time per day.
- Point out celebrity "truth." Help inoculate your kids to the unrealistic images of beauty that show up throughout popular culture. Remind kids that it takes an army of stylists, trainers, makeup artists, and Photoshop editors to make celebrities look the way they do.
- Model good behavior. Take a "screen break." Get everyone up and moving with a walk, a bike ride, a chore, or a trip to the store.
- Talk about your values. You can't always be around to cover your kids' eyes or ears from inappropriate sexual content, but you can help them develop an inner compass by sharing your own values about sex.
- Watch and listen with your child. When a sexy song comes on the radio or a racy scene pops up on TV, use it as a way to start a discussion with your kids about your values. Let them know when your values clash with what's being presented in the media — they might not act like it, but they are listening.
Violence, Sex, and Addiction in Media
Have you played a T- or M-rated video game lately, watched a cop show, or seen an action movie? Violent and aggressive behavior shows up everywhere in the media. Interactive video game technology allows players to assume the role of characters who maim, kill, and wreak all kinds of havoc. And when younger kids watch movies with scary images, they can have increased anxiety, sleep disruption, and wicked nightmares. Here's what you can do to minimize the effects:
- Limit exposure to violence. The more time your child spends with violent content, the greater its impact and influence, so keep an eye on the clock.
- Pay attention to the ratings. Games rated M are extremely violent — and often sexually explicit, as well. The messages are far too mature for younger teens. Most games are tagged with the reasoning behind their ratings, which also proves useful when deciding what material is appropriate for your child.
- Explain the truth of violence. Because violence is so prevalent in the media, kids can become desensitized to it and fail to realize how devastating real-world violence can be. Teach kids to stand up for themselves without throwing a punch.
- Defuse funny alcohol ads, because there's nothing funny about drunk driving. No one likes being the wet blanket, but you might remind your kids that those amusing beer ads are there for one reason: to sell alcohol.
Media is fun for kids; it helps them discover the world and can be a great way for families to bond together. The challenge for you is to make sure that children use it wisely and well, in ways that are healthy for their growing bodies and minds. You do have power and can make a difference.