Taming the Media Monster

Children are more exposed to media than ever before -- so how can physicians help steer parents and kids in the right direction?

Too much media may be harmful for children, but if used the right way, it can have benefits, according to an updated policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics that offers guidance for physicians in helping families make positive media choices.

The statement, which is published in the November issue of Pediatrics, “reflects the dramatic changes in the media landscape over the past decade.” When the issue was last addressed in 1999, statistics showed children and adolescents spent more than 3 hours per day on average watching television.

Today, kids are now spending more than 7 hours per day on average using televisions, computers, phones and other electronic devices for entertainment. The increasing availability of media, including access to inappropriate content that is not easily supervised, creates an urgent need for parents, pediatricians and educators to understand the various ways that media use impacts children and teens, said the Council on Communications and Media Executive Committee, which is led by Victor C. Strasburger, MD, and includes MDNG: Pediatrics Physician Editor-in-Chief Gwenn S. O’Keeffe, MD.

The content of media must be considered, including entertainment, news and advertising, said the authors, emphasizing the effects of violent or sexual content, and movies or shows that glamorize alcohol and tobacco use. Studies have shown that high levels of media use are associated with problems at school, attention difficulties, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity. And the Internet and cell phones have become important new sources and platforms for illicit and risky behaviors, they wrote.

However, media education does have the potential to reduce harmful media effects, and careful selection of media can help children to learn. In addition to longstanding AAP advice about limiting, planning and supervising media use, new recommendations include:

  • Pediatricians should ask at least two media-related questions at each visit: How much entertainment media per day is the child or adolescent watching? (The AAP recommends that children have less than two hours of screen time per day, and viewing should be avoided for children under age two.) Is there a TV set or Internet access in the child or teen’s bedroom?
  • Parents should be good media role models; emphasize alternate activities; and create an “electronic media-free” environment in children’s bedrooms.
  • Schools should begin to implement media education in their curricula, and Congress should consider funding universal media education in schools.
  • The federal government and private foundations should dramatically increase their funding for media research.

The authors conclude that a media-educated person will be able to limit his or her media use, make positive media choices, develop critical thinking and viewing skills, and be less vulnerable to negative effects of media content and advertising. In addition, simply reducing children’s and adolescents’ screen media use has been shown conclusively to have beneficial health effects.

For more information:

  • Pediatrics—Policy Statement on Media Education from the Council on Communications and Media
  • AAP: The Less Kids See of Joe Camel, the Better
  • Dr. Gwenn: Digital Citizenship

What is the physician’s role in terms of educating parents and children on appropriate media use? How do you approach this issue in your practice?