Decades of studies linking TV and video games to overweight, violent, socially isolated, consumerized, sexualized children were bolstered by another series of reports released Monday.
Frustrated in their efforts to change what kids watch, a growing movement hopes to change how they watch.
But even with the best efforts of parents like Michelle Contreras, it feels like an uphill battle. Contreras limits the screen time in her Mesa home, in part because she sees the impact it has on her boys.
“Even with the cartoons, you see the violence,” she said. “And I find they have much more attitude when they’ve been on the Gameboy. It’s a source of conflict.”
Some media experts, as well as editorials accompanying the studies in a pediatric medical journal, question why, given so much evidence over so many years, so little has been done.
“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,” associate editor Dimitri A. Christakis and University of Washington professor Frederick Zimmerman wrote in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.
“Most of what has been done to date to understand, curtail or regulate the negative effects of media on children can be viewed as failure.”
Instead of spending still more time and money studying the effects of media on children, or trying vainly to change the multibillion-dollar media and advertising industries, or waging a tug of war with children over Nintendo and Nickelodeon, more parents and educators are helping kids become savvy about the images they see.
The idea is to teach children how to make informed media choices, rather than trying to control the choices they make.
“We don’t need any more studies. We know what the media effects are,” said Lynda Bergsma, assistant professor at the University of Arizona’s Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health. “We need to help kids to become more media literate.”
Parents are key players in helping curb their children’s media consumption, experts say, but kids need to be taught how to watch wisely and not be sucked in by the 40,000 TV commercials they see each year.
“This media-oriented generation is targeted from birth,” pediatrician Donald Shifrin wrote in an editorial accompanying the studies. “Parents and schools should be natural allies in producing media-literate children.”
Among the studies, researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine found that the more TV elementary schoolchildren watched, the more they asked for advertised toys and junk food. The children watched an average of 22 hours of TV weekly.
Two studies linked TV viewing to overeating. Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found that Boston public schoolchildren consumed more calories the more they watched, including a larger percentage of fast food, soda and other products typically advertised on TV.
“Although children and youth are encouraged to watch what they eat, many youth seem to eat what they watch,” the study’s authors wrote.
Although the studies and editorials make a compelling case for teaching families how to be better media consumers, it’s still a battle.
Some schools have abandoned TV Turnoff Week, which is April 24-30, because of a lack of interest. Parents who limit TV and video games know they’re bucking the trend and many of them figure, “What’s the point?”
“It’s almost impossible,” said Adams Elementary School principal Devon Isherwoo. ”It’s multibillion-dollar industries against schools that are trying to do the best they can just to educate kids.”
Contreras keeps trying. She acknowledges the positives that media brings, such as nature shows on the Discovery Channel, which send her kids searching for their atlas, and arts and crafts ideas they get from “Zoom” on PBS.
And she knows when it’s time to turn it off.
“My kids are very active,” she said. “They spend a lot of time outside.”
Limit TV watching
Here are some ideas for parents to help their children become media savvy and limit their viewing:
• Limit TV-watching hours. Turn off the television during dinner — it’s prime time for families to connect. Don’t allow your child to watch TV while doing homework.
• Have your children read a book and then watch the movie adaptation. Discuss how they are different and why.
• Keep television and Internet access out of your child’s bedroom. Research shows kids with TVs in their rooms have lower test scores. The same research found that more than 70 percent of kids have TV in their rooms.
• Encourage your children to think about their favorite programs. What do they like about them? How realistic are they? How do the characters resolve conflicts?
• Recognize media stereotypes. Are they true or false? Why? Are there exceptions? How do the people on TV compare to people your child knows?
• Have your kids pay attention to the types of commercials aired during different programs. Help them understand that media attracts audiences for advertisers, and programming helps advertisers sell their products to different markets.
• Avoid making TV background noise and avoid channel surfing. If you’re going to watch TV, really watch it.
• Be familiar with the programs, video games and music your children are consuming. It’s a huge window into how they think and the values they may be developing.
• Set a good example by limiting your own TV viewing. SOURCE: Just Think, a San Francisco-based media literacy group.