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This may not surprise most people: children and teenagers in the U.S. spend more time engaged with various forms of media than any other single activity except sleeping.
A recent study of 2,000 youth aged eight to 18, found that they spend on average seven hours with media each day. The “media” referred to includes TV, movies, video and computer games, the Internet, music lyrics and videos, magazines, books, advertisements and, yes, even the newspaper you hold in your hand.
Cell phones are so pervasive as to be a topic for another article. Across all ages, TV remains the predominant medium of choice and by age 70, these young people will have spent seven to 10 years watching TV. That’s a lot of SpongeBob (and may be more NCIS than even my son could handle.)
TV watching is also becoming more commonplace with younger kids. The latest National Report found that on a typical day, two out of three toddlers and infants under age two watch one-and-a-half hours of TV. As further evidence that we, as a country, have our priorities neatly sorted out, more homes in the U.S. have a television set than indoor plumbing.
Today’s child grows up in an environment with an average of four TV’s, three DVD/VCR players, two CD players, two video game consoles and two computers.
OK, so these statistics probably do not apply so well to Los Alamos. It would be silly to think that the average home here has only two computers.
So why are we concerned with all this? Simply put, time spent with media displaces involvement in creative, active and social activities. There are numerous detrimental effects of excessive media, but the one I want to emphasize today is the clear evidence associating time spent in front of a screen with the development of childhood obesity.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has formulated various policy statements in an attempt to address these issues. After all, obesity and its resultant co-morbidities ends up killing more people in the U.S. than AIDS, all cancers and accidents combined.
The simple daily goals outlined by the AAP are: five vegetables and fruits, two hours or less of screen time, one hour of being physically active and 0 sugar sweetened drinks.
These goals are sound and relatively simple, yet we may find them somewhat challenging to accomplish in the real world. Unlike pop stars and professional athletes, parents are the true role models who can set patterns of healthy eating habits and daily physical activity, like a simple game of tag.
Families that prepare and eat healthy meals together are less likely to be overweight. Also less prone to obesity are those who eat breakfast, use low fat dairy products and limit fast food and dining out.
Not all media is harmful. Certain programs can teach children empathy, tolerance towards and respect for people of other races and ages and can convey vital public health messages (like the newspaper you hold in your hand).
It certainly helps to be “media literate” and “media educated” — that is, able to decipher all the coded messages with which we are besieged and develop critical thinking and viewing skills, including surviving the $400 million a year erectile dysfunction ads and the 10,000 food ads, mostly for junk and fast food.
We can help our kids make positive media choices, limit use of media and understand the political, social, economic and emotional implications of all media.
Countries such as Canada and Great Britain mandate media education in their school curricula. The New Mexico based Media Literacy Project can be one good place to start exploring at www.medialiteracyproject.org. Media education has been shown to improve sophistication about advertising, make young people less vulnerable to its negative effects, diminish aggressive attitudes and behaviors and reduce alcohol and tobacco use.
Sounds like a great investment.
Dr. Tom Csanadi
Child and Adolescent Medicine