Media influences on children

[ 0 ] 13/09/2022 |

10. Media influences on children by Dr. Brigitte Vittrup

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Children these days spend a lot of time with various forms of screen media, including television, computers, websites, video games, and cell phones. Research shows that children in industrialized nations spend upwards of 6-8 hours per day engaged with screen media. This is despite the fact that various medical and scientific communities advise against excessive media use. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics has for a long time recommended that children ages 2-17 spend no more than 2 hours per day in front of screens and that children under 2 have no screen time exposure. In addition, a recent consensus statement by the European Academy of Paediatrics and the European Childhood Obesity Group recommended a limit of 90 minutes per day due to the link between increased screen time and childhood obesity.  

Decades of research have shown us that media exposure influences children’s behavior, attitudes, and general development. Electronic media can sometimes be seen as a “window on the world.” With the amount of time children spend in front of screens, they gain a lot of information – some of it true and realistic, and some of it not so much – about the world and the society they live in. Children who spend a lot of time with television, video games, and internet content are likely to think that at least a good amount of that content is a true representation of reality.  Therefore, what they see is likely to influence them, because this content provides examples of behaviors, and the media characters can be seen as role models (both positive and negative). Over time, they may begin to imitate behaviors and pick up on various social attitudes about others (parents, authority figures, minority groups, etc.).

a) Positive influences of media

Electronic media offers a wealth of educational resources that can teach children from preschool through the teenage years important knowledge and skills. This includes educational websites that teach children language, reading, math, art, problem-solving, and social studies; video tutorials teaching children how to create things, build things, solve maths and statistical problems, and speak a foreign language; educational video games that can teach children problem-solving and spatial skills; and a variety of educational and informational television programs that can teach children all of the above. In addition, some programs can inspire pro-social learning, such as cooperation, helping behaviors, empathy, and moral values.

While there are a lot of positive educational resources available, they are not always the ones that are advertised most prominently, and therefore parents may need to help their children seek out these sites and programs. In addition, even positive media should be limited to a few hours per day.

b) Negative influences of media

Unfortunately, there is also a lot of negative content in electronic media. Over the past 50 years, violence in television, film, and video games has increased exponentially. In addition, live fight videos are being distributed on social media and video-sharing websites, making them easily accessible to children. Research shows that frequent exposure to media violence can make children more aggressive because they learn that violence is a means to solve a problem. It can also make children more anxious and afraid because they learn that the world around them may be dangerous.

The amount of sexual content has also increased, and there is evidence that repeated exposure may lead to teenagers engaging in risky sexual behaviors at earlier ages.

Television and video games often portray minority populations in stereotyped and negative manners. For example, people of color are frequently portrayed as villains or criminals whereas white people are portrayed as being powerful and in leadership roles. Women are often objectified or portrayed as passive and less intelligent. Muslims are often portrayed as terrorists.

For children and youth belonging to marginalized groups, these portrayals can affect their self-esteem, aspirations for the future, and general vulnerability.  

Finally, the increasing popularity of social media sites and the ability to connect with people worldwide through social media, internet groups, and video games, can leave children vulnerable to negative exposures, risky propositions, and bullying. 

c) What parents can do

When children are young, parents have a lot of control over their children’s access to media, and it is important to establish good rules and habits early on. However, research from both Europe and the United States shows that many parents are unaware of their children’s media habits and do not enforce many media rules at home. There are various rules parents can put in place to selectively restrict the amount of time children spend with electronic media (for example, no more than 2 hours per day), the content they are allowed to access (based on their age), and the context of the media exposure (for example, watching TV with the children, having a computer or video game console in a family room instead of the child’s bedroom, and not allowing them to interact with unknown individuals online).  

Even with established media rules, children may at times – either deliberately or accidentally – be exposed to inappropriate content. Therefore, it is important that parents discuss the content, help children understand what is appropriate/inappropriate and why, and help them develop media literacy skills. Young children, due to cognitive limitations, do not yet have the ability to critically evaluate the content they are exposed to, such as intent, purpose, persuasion, and depictions of so-called reality. By discussing these, parents can help children develop these skills. Being able to critically evaluate media content can help buffer any negative effects of media exposure. Critically evaluating content includes identifying what is appropriate and inappropriate, as well as understanding that information may be biased or slanted, and that not everything you read on websites or see on television is the unbiased truth. In addition, parents should help their children seek out positive content that can help educate them and inspire positive self-esteem.

It is still important to remember that even positive content and educational media cannot replace direct interaction with positive role models. Children can often learn more from conversations and engaging activities with family members and peers. One of the reasons for the advised restrictions on screen time for very young children is that children need direct face-to-face interactions with others for proper brain development in the early years. Children’s cognitive development is aided by bidirectional interactions with more knowledgeable others, such as adults, and their developing social skills benefit from direct interactions and feedback from peers and adults.

The more time children spend with media, the less time they spend in social interactions with others, and therefore it is important to limit their exposure to the extent possible.  However, given the easy access and a wealth of media technologies available to children, the reality is that they will continue to spend a lot of time with electronic media. In addition, media content is not likely to become more child-friendly. But the influence of media on children’s behavior, attitudes, and development can be mediated by the context in which the exposure occurs. Thus, the onus is on parents to be involved in their children’s media use by monitoring, selectively restricting, and discussing the media content with their children.

NEXT CHAPTER: The impact of culture on the education of the young

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