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Children and Media Exposure

Children and Media Exposure
Posted on August 9, 2017 by CHS

As technology continues to play a larger role in our everyday lives, our children consume much more media from different sources than did previous generations. With the adoption of smart phones and tablets, media is more accessible than ever. Many parents struggle with questions about how modern media, advertising, entertainment, video games, and social media affect children, in both the content of the messages, as well as the degree of exposure or time spent in front of a screen.

Screen Time: Between 2011 and 2013, the average amount of time children spent using mobile devices tripled, and more than twice as many children under two had used a mobile device. In 2010, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported children and teens were getting an average of more than seven hours of screen time per day, and 8-18 year-olds were watching an average of four hours of TV daily. The American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) recommends that screen time for children be limited to two hours per day, and children under three should avoid screens altogether. According to the AAP, numerous studies have correlated too much screen time and media exposure with negative health effects, including attention problems, academic challenges, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity. The internet can also provide a vehicle for illicit or risky behaviors.

Digital Educational Content and Child Development: The Children’s Television Act of 1990 mandated that stations provide programming specifically designed to serve the educational needs of children in return for free use of publicly-owned airwaves. Broadcasters are required to provide three hours of children’s educational programming per week; however these programs, as well as educational apps, are not all created equal when it comes to educational content and quality. Children Now reports that only one in eight children’s educational TV programs meets high quality standards for educational content. The AAP notes that children under two cannot learn from interactions with digital content, and need parents to “re-teach” the content presented. They specifically say that “for children younger than two years, evidence for benefits of media is still limited, adult interaction with the child during media use is crucial, and there continues to be evidence of harm from excessive digital media use.” For preschool-age children, well-designed programs and apps such as Sesame Street have been shown to improve cognitive, literacy, and social outcomes for children. Unfortunately, most of the educational apps available in the marketplace do not have evidence of efficacy, teach rote academic skills, are not based on established curricula, and were not designed with input from developmental specialists or educators. Most were not designed with parent-child interaction in mind, which is key to early development.

Marketing to Children: Children are particularly susceptible to the influence of the media. The advocacy organization Children Now reports that children under the age of eight do not recognize the persuasive intent of ads and tend to accept them as accurate and unbiased. Children as young as two can develop brand preferences when they watch commercials. In recent decades, childhood obesity has skyrocketed. At this same time, there has also been an explosion in media targeted to children. The link between childhood obesity and media exposure has several potential causes:

  • The time spent consuming media is not spent doing physical activities
  • Food advertisements encourage children to make unhealthy food and beverage choices
  • Cross-promotion between food and beverage products and popular TV shows, movies, and characters also encourages children to make unhealthy choices
  • Children snack and eat less healthy meals when eating in front of the TV or computer
  • Watching TV lowers the metabolic rate, even lower than the level when sleeping
  • Depictions of nutrition and body weight in the media encourage unhealthy diets

Numerous research studies have confirmed the connection between watching TV or other forms of media consumption and childhood or adolescent obesity. In 2004, Congress recognized that marketing practices targeting children by the food and beverage industry were out of balance with healthful diets and was contributing to childhood obesity, diabetes, and other health problems. The Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative was launched in 2006 by business bureaus and major food and beverage corporations to shift advertising directed at children and encourage healthier lifestyles and dietary choices. Eighteen corporations currently participate, which represent 80% of child-directed food and beverage advertising. Companies pledge to either not market to children or to only market foods and beverages that conform to specific nutritional standards. Despite this effort, three out of four foods and beverages marketed to children fall into the unhealthy category. Another issue is the use of licensed characters to market junk foods to children. Children Now reports that nearly half of all food marketing to children using licensed characters are ads for junk foods.

Tips from the American Psychological Association to counter the influence of the marketing of junk foods to children include:

  • Active healthy lifestyles for children and adolescents include moderate television viewing, regular family mealtimes, and regular exercise.
  • Limit excessive time spent watching TV, video, gaming, or surfing the web.
  • Monitor the media that your children consume, particularly if they are under age 8.
  • Encourage healthy eating habits (i.e., greater consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat or non-fat milk or dairy products, lean meats, poultry, fish, and beans) and promote physical activity.
  • Eat with your kids and take pleasure in your mealtimes together.
  • Lead by example by eating healthy foods and engaging in physical activity yourself. Remember you can have the greatest influence on your children’s health. 
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