By Victor C. Strasburger, M.D.
Dr. Strasburger is a Professor of Pediatrics at the University of New Mexico and author of Children, Adolescents, and the Media, 2nd ed. (with Barbara Wilson, Ph.D. and Amy Jordan, Ph.D.), Sage, 2009. ©Victor C. Strasburger, M.D.
How about that powerful antidrug commercial paid for by the U.S. government? It aired right between the seventh and eighth Budweiser commercials.
David Letterman, CBS' Late Show, 2002:
My 6-year-old daughter turned to me and said, "What's a 4-hour erection? How do you explain it?"
Kelly Simmons, Executive VP, Tierney Communications, Philadelphia
Given the enormous influence that electronic media in all of their forms exerts on the lives of children, it is astonishing how little parents, researchers, and policymakers have been spurred to action.
TV researchers Dimitri Christakis and Fred Zimmerman
Like they do with the weather, people complain about the media all the time. Too much violence, too much sex, too many beer ads, too many commercials in general, too much bad language (the hell, you say?). When kids are spending more than 7 hours a day with media that can potentially be harming their health - or improving their health - the key question is how to change things for the better.
And that's where most people stop, because after all, how do you "change" Hollywood, or Madison Avenue, or the 6 major TV networks and the 300 plus cable channels? We're all just blowin' in the wind here, right? Wrong. Here's one place where I agree with Hollywood moguls - there is an off-switch on your TV set. There is no good reason to put a TV set or an Internet connection into your child's bedroom. Your 5-year-old does not need his own cell phone. Your 7-year-old does not have to go see "Avatar" because all of his little friends are seeing it.
When it comes to media, parents are basically both clueless and gutless. On a list of 50 things you want to argue with your kids about, the media probably log in around #103. When was the last time you said, "You can't watch that - it's not the right kind of show for you"? When was the last time you checked what movie was being shown at your 10-year-old daughter's sleepover? Have you texted your child today? Friended them?
Parents must control their kids' access to media from the get-go. That means no baby videos - unless you've got baby sitting in your lap and are interacting with him, in which case you are the primary source of entertainment, not the screen. Seven studies show that TV or videos before the age of 2 years may result in language delays; only 1 small study - to be published in a few months - shows that videos might - might - help 18-24 month-olds discriminate shapes. So babies will now be able to tell who's fat and thin? Oh boy. That means no TV set in the child's bedroom. Yes, I know, it's not in there now because of any grand plan. It's there because you got a gazillion dollar, plasma-digital-sensurround sound HDTV for your living room and you didn't want to give the old TV to Goodwill. Go ahead, give it away. That will just leave you with 4 TV sets in your house instead of 5 (the average in the U.S.). There are more households in the U.S. with TV sets than with indoor plumbing!
Every research study we have documents that kids with TV sets in their bedrooms watch more TV (of course), are more likely to be obese, and may be more likely to engage in other risky activities like drug use (because they see more programming and more PG-13 and R-rated movies that are inappropriate for them). Speaking of inappropriate, every time I go to the movies these days I see a dozen 3-8 year-olds sitting in the audience for a PG-13 or R-rated movie. What's up with that? I'm trying to do a research study of why parents do this - is it (a) because they can't afford a babysitter? (b) because they were taken to see such movies when they were growing up? (c) the "nag factor" (d) because they think all the violence, sex, bad language, smoking, an drinking in PG-13 and R-rated movies is harmless or (e) all of the above? I wish I knew.
If you're worried about your 14-year-old son downloading porn on his computer, don't put an Internet connection in his bedroom, and don't network the entire house. If the only computer with the connection is in the den, and everyone is always in there, do you really think he's going to be looking at porn or surfing websites for Aryan Nation or building bombs? His 8 year-old sister is going to rat him out every time.
But here's where I draw the line: it's not just up to parents. We've got plenty of responsibilities already. Wouldn't it be nice if Hollywood and the networks and cable stations produced a better, healthier product so you didn't have to worry so much? They make billions of dollars, but no - they accept no responsibility for what they produce. According to them, it's just harmless entertainment which has no effect on people (except that pictures like "Shindler's List" are ennobling and life-affirming - you get the idea - the good pictures are great and contribute wonderfully to society, but the bad stuff doesn't matter). If you believe that, I have some beachfront property off the southern coast of New Mexico I'd like to interest you in.
Schools have a responsibility, too. Many schools are wrestling with media issues, such as how to control cell phones and whether to allow laptops in classrooms. Yes, they need policies. But schools and teachers also need to learn how to use media creatively to teach kids. No more rote memorization, when information is a nanosecond away on Google. Why teach the Civil War out of a textbook when Ken Burns' series is available? And for heaven's sake, let's stop torturing 7th and 8th graders by making them read "Romeo and Juliet" when there are 10 different DVD versions available which have a far greater chance of turning them on to Shakespeare than reading Elizabethan English does.
Last, but hardly least, we have the Federal government's role in all of this. We're not talking censorship here (with one notable exception), just common sense. Consider this: the last government report that gathered all of available research on the impact of media on children was in 1982 - before the Internet, before DVDs, almost before VCRs! It's time for a new National Institutes of Mental Health or Surgeon General's report that will bring together what we know now, what we don't know, and what needs to be done to maximize the positive impact of media. It's also time for Congress to ban all tobacco advertising in all media. Other countries do it, why can't we? Primarily because we have the best Congress money can buy. That's one of the reasons why a popular senator like Sen. Bayh (D-IN) isn't running for re-election. He's fed up. Do you have any idea of why cigarette ads are not on TV? Yes, Congress did pass a law, in 1971, banning such ads. But they did it with the complete agreement of the tobacco lobby. Do you really think 434,000 Americans dying each year from tobacco-related causes was sufficient for Congress to act against the industry? Remember that beachfront property.
The government could also pass CAMRA, the Children and Media Research Advancement Act, which would fund desperately-needed media research. The Federal Communications Commission could insist that all ads for ED drugs be aired after 10 p.m. so that younger children wouldn't have to see them. The FCC could also severely restrict all advertising targeting young children - who are intellectually and psychologically defenseless against advertising - and limit ads for junk food and fast food.
There is lots we could do, but do we have the courage to do it?
Dr Strasburger is an expert in adolescent medicine and Chief of the Division of Adolescent Medicine at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. Has has authored more than 120 books, chapters, and original articles in pediatric literature. He is author of Adolescent Medicine: A Practical Guide, 2nd edition, 1998, Lippincott-Williams & Wilkins and Adolescents and The Media: Medical and Psychological Impact, 1995, Sage.
Reprinted with permission.