Media, Influence on Children
MEDIA, INFLUENCE ON CHILDREN
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), "Children are influenced by media–they learn by observing, imitating, and making behaviors their own" (2001, p.1224). The influence of media on children has been the subject of increased attention among parents, educators, and health care professionals. The significance of this issue becomes obvious when one notes the diversity of Americans who share this concern. Included in this group of concerned citizens are those, most notably politicians, who typically stand in opposition to one another on many issues, but who stand together in agreement on this one.
Media influence on children has steadily increased as new and more sophisticated types of media have been developed and made available to the American public. Availability, as well as greater affordability for American families, has provided easier access to media for children. Beneficial effects include early readiness for learning, educational enrichment, opportunities to view or participate in discussions of social issues, exposure to the arts through music and performance, and entertainment. Harmful effects may result from sensationalization of violent behavior, exposure to subtle or explicit sexual content, promotion of unrealistic body images, presentation of poor health habits as desirable practices, and exposure to persuasive advertising targeting children.
In the following discussion, some attention will be given to the beneficial effects of media on children, but the primary focus will be on negative influences, which have been more widely researched.
History of Media for Children
The twentieth century was a time of phenomenal growth and development of new kinds of media. In the early twentieth century, film, radio, and newspapers were the media forms to which children had access, though limited. Beginning in the early 1940s and continuing through the end of the century, children's media experiences expanded to include television, recorded music, videotapes, electronic games, interactive computer software, and the Internet. Print media, such as comic books and children's magazines, also expanded during this period, though not at the same accelerated rate as the visual electronic media.
Commercial television made its debut in 1941, initiating a new era of media influence. One of the earliest documented examples of the effect of advertising in the media was the introduction in 1952 of television ads for Mr. Potato Head, a toy manufactured by Hasbro. Gross sales were more than $4 million in its first year of television advertising. At that time, more than two-thirds of television sets were owned by families with children under twelve years of age.
Educational programming, offered primarily on public television stations, was the next milestone in television's early influences on children. In the larger discussion of media influence on children, educational programming is without question the source of the most significant and long-lasting positive effects.
A pioneer in educational programming was the Children's Television Workshop, founded in 1968 by Joan Ganz Cooney, Lloyd Morrisett, Gerald Lesser, and others. The creation of a television production company dedicated to children's educational programming was a result of Cooney's study of television for preschool children for the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The project that evolved was a research-based collaboration by educators, psychologists, child development experts, writers and musicians. Sesame Street was the first program produced, making its televised debut in 1969. Sesame Street was designed to combine education with entertainment and to target children of preschool age. The development of Sesame Street was research-driven to ensure that the most effective strategies for early learning through media were employed. Other children's programs subsequently developed by the Children's Television Workshop included 3-2-1 Contact, The Best of Families, The Electric Company, and Feeling Good. Programming produced by the Children's Television Workshop was innovative, was well received by the public, and became a model for other programs, both in the media and as in school settings, for providing effective early learning experiences to prepare young children to enter school. The positive influence of the Children's Television Workshop on American children was widespread.
During the 1980s and 1990s, unprecedented growth occurred in the field of computer technology, resulting in the increased availability of computers to children, both in their homes and schools. Improved access for children resulted in expanded media influence on children, with a new interactive element that was not previously seen in media.
During this same period, media content underwent a transformation that was characterized by increased use of sexual themes and violent behavior. This change was evident in movies, television programming, music lyrics, video games, cartoons, and magazines. There was an outcry from parents and concerned adults who objected to children's exposure to content that was age inappropriate and who were troubled by the probable negative effects of such exposure. In an attempt to inform adults who were monitoring children's media exposure, ratings systems were developed that identified content categories and frequency or intensity of specific incidents. Rating codes were used to label movies, television programs, and music lyrics. Although rating systems served their purpose of informing the public, it is questionable to what extent children were actually affected by their implementation.
There are two important factors that must be included in the discussion of media influence on children. One factor, called media literacy, was addressed by Renee Hobbs. Hobbs contended that:
Just because our students can use media and technology doesn't mean they are effective at critically analyzing and evaluating the messages they receive. Students need a set of skills to ask important questions about what they watch, see, listen to and read. Often called media literacy, these skills include the ability to critically analyze media messages and the ability to use different kinds of communication technologies for self-expression and communication.
A child who is media illiterate is more vulnerable to being influenced by messages in all kinds of media.
The second factor that can affect how children are influenced by media is the amount of parental involvement in supervising media exposure of children. The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Research and Improvement published guidelines in 1994 that said:
Parental monitoring is a key factor, since the research studies show that increasing guidance from parents is at least as important as simply reducing media violence. Children may learn negative behavior patterns and values from many other experiences as well as TV programs, and parental guidance is needed to help children sort out these influences and develop the ability to make sound decisions on their own.
An important media literacy skill, which can be developed through parental guidance, is a child's ability to distinguish between reality and fantasy in media messages. Children may not be capable of making this distinction without an adult's help, resulting in a child's confused perception of fantasy as reality. But with proper adult guidance, they can learn to critique what they view and become more discriminating consumers of media.
Studies of Media Influence
Media violence and its effects on children was the first area in which extensive scientific research was done. In 1972 the Office of the Surgeon General conducted studies on media violence and its effects on children who viewed it. The conclusions of these studies were confirmed and extended by studies performed at the National Institute of Mental Health in 1982. Three years later, the American Psychological Association (APA) published a report that reaffirmed the previous studies. A landmark report of media influence on children was published by the AAP in 1999. The study was done by the Committee on Public Education, and presented in their policy statement of August 1999. In July 2000, at a Congressional Public Health Summit, the AAP, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the APA issued an unprecedented "Joint Statement on the Impact of Entertainment Violence on Children." Speaking for members of the national public-health community, the statement presented a consensus opinion on the effects of violence in the media on children. The joint statement, however, included an interesting and important distinction that addressed the context of violence in the media, stating: "It is not violence itself but the context in which it is portrayed that can make the difference between learning about violence and learning to be violent." With the important caveat in mind, the overwhelming consensus of the aforementioned studies was that there is substantial evidence that exposure to violence in the media has harmful effects on children and has been linked to children's aggressive behavior.
Violence in interactive media forms (Internet, computer and video games) as opposed to passive media forms (television, movies, videos) may have even stronger effects on children and, as a result, has become a focus of new research. According to the Office of the Surgeon General, "children are theoretically more susceptible to behavioral influences when they are active participants than when they are observers." To further legitimize these concerns, the AAP reported that initial studies of interactive media show that the element of child-initiated virtual violence may result in even more significant effects than those of passive media. Because research has already shown that passive media violence has significant influence on children, the implications of increased effects from interactive media are troublesome.
Despite the research reports, there was debate between television broadcasters and scientists regarding the harmful effects of television violence on children. Broadcasters asserted that there was not enough evidence to link viewing television violence to children's aggressive behavior. Scientists, nevertheless, stood by their research findings.
Domains of Influence
Research studies have identified the following domains of influence in which media content has been shown to have negative effects on children: violence and aggressive behavior, sexual content, body image and self-esteem, and physical health and school performance. Information on media violence has been taken from the following primary sources: the 2002 APA study titled "Violence on Television" and the 1999 and 2001 policy statements of the Committee on Public Education of the AAP. The 2001 policy statement is recommended as a comprehensive source of information on the topic of media violence. Other studies were referenced for information on sexual content, body image, and health issues.
Violence and aggressive behavior. The question of violence in the media and its influence on children is probably the most widely researched domain of media influence. Studies over a span of three decades, beginning in the early 1970s, have shown that significant exposure to media violence increases the risk of aggressive behavior in certain children and adolescents. Other effects on children include desensitization to others' pain and suffering and the tendency to be fearful of the world around them, viewing it as a dangerous place. Research has also shown that news reports of violent crimes can traumatize young children.
Sexual content. Increased attention has been given to the second domain, sexual content in the media. The sexualization of American media has become the focus of widespread discussion and criticism by children's advocates. According to studies commissioned by the Kaiser Family Foundation collectively labeled "Sex, Kids, and the Family Hour," there was a 400 percent increase from 1976 to 1996 in sexual references during the evening television viewing time period commonly referred to as "family hour." It was determined that by 1996 children were exposed to about eight sexual references per hour during this time slot. In Media, Children, and the Family, Jennings Bryant and Steven Rockwell reported the results of their studies that investigated the effects of exposure to sexual content on television. They found that such exposure affected adolescents' moral judgment. They qualified the results, however, by saying that parental discussion and clear expression of personal values mitigated the effects on adolescents.
Body image and self-esteem. The third domain, body image and self-esteem, is widely affected by advertising in the media. Researchers have suggested that media may influence the development of self-esteem in adolescents through messages about body image. Television, movies, magazines, and advertisements present images that promote unrealistic expectations of beauty, body weight, and acceptable physical appearance. Efforts to sell an image that adheres to certain standards of body weight and size may be a catalyst for eating disorders suffered by some adolescents. And, when adolescents fall short of their own expectations based on media images, self-esteem can suffer. Media theorists and researchers have determined that the effects of this trend are being seen in both boys and girls, with negative psychological affects. Advertisement of appealing, but often financially unaffordable, clothing and promotion of negative gender stereotypes are other areas of concern. Further research on the connections among media messages, body image, and self-esteem is warranted.
Physical health and school performance. The fourth domain involves the amount of time that children spend engaged with media activities. The average American child or adolescent spends more than twenty hours per week viewing television. Additional time is often spent watching movies, listening to music, watching music videos, playing video or computer games, or spending computer time on the Internet. This increase in time spent by children using media for recreation has been shown to be a significant factor in childhood obesity due to associated physical inactivity. School achievement may also be affected as a result of decreased time spent on homework or school assignments. And parents often unintentionally contribute to this negative influence by using the television as a way to occupy their children's attention–as a babysitter of sorts. Educators have expressed concerns that the passive nature of media exposure undermines the ability of students to be active learners. Conversely, there have been concerns that overstimulation due to excessive media use might be related to attention deficit disorder or hyperactivity. There has been no research to date that indicates a clear relationship.
Increasingly, tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drugs have been glamorized in the media. Tobacco manufacturers spend $6 billion per year and alcohol manufacturers $2 billion per year in advertising that appeals to children. Movies and television programs often show the lead character or likeable characters using and enjoying tobacco and alcohol products. On the other hand, media also provide factual information and venues for discussion, typically through public service announcements or through public programming, informing children and warning them of the dangers of addictions to these substances. These educational messages, however, are on a much smaller scale and are much less appealing in their presentation.
The AAP, the Office of the Surgeon General, and the APA have offered recommendations to address the issues of media influence on children. Included in these recommendations are suggestions for parents, educators, and health care professionals to advocate for a safer media environment for children through media literacy. They urge media producers to be more responsible in their portrayal of violence. They advocate for more useful and effective media ratings.
A consistent recommendation in studies, however, is proactive parental involvement in children's media experiences. By monitoring what children hear and see, discussing issues that emerge, and sharing media time with their children, parents can moderate the negative influences as well as increase the positive effects of media in the lives of their children.
See also: Literacy, subentry on Multimedia Literacy; Media and Learning; Out-OF-School Influences and Academic Success; Technology in Education, subentry on Current Trends.
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Laura Blackwell Clark
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