Saturday, December 6, 2008

The impact of new media on children

I’ve written previously on this blog about the impact of television on children (here and here). However, a new meta-analysis study has analysed the more general effects of media across 173 studies with worrying findings. The study was conducted by researchers from the National Institutes of Health and Yale University. It considered studies across a period of 30 years that adressed the impact of television, music, movies and other media on the lives of children and adolescents. The findings are worrying. For example, many studies showed that there is a significant relationship between time devoted to new media and a variety of health or behavioural problems, for example:
  • 83% of studies found a relationship with obesity
  • 88% found a relationship to sexual behaviour
  • 75% found a relationship to drug use
  • 80% found a relationship to alcohol use
  • 88% found a relationship to tobacco use
  • 69% found a relationship to ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)

In releasing the report this week one of the researchers, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, of the NIH, commented that:
"The results clearly show that there is a strong correlation between media exposure and long-term negative health effects to children. This study provides an important jumping-off point for future research that should explore both the effects of traditional media content and that of digital media -- such as video games, the Internet, and cell phones -- which kids are using today with more frequency."

While there are many benefits of new media there are clearly disadvantages if children spend too much time with machines that generate images, and sound and not enough time with people, engaging in real relationships, exploring their physical world, playing, listening to stories and engaging in ways that stimulate them in other ways. I've written a great deal about the alternative benefits of things such as play (here), reading (here) and creative activities (here).

This latest research comes on top of an increasing number of studies that are demonstrating that excessive exposure to media like television, video games and computers, can actually change the activity and ‘shape’ of the brain as well as slowing down activity (I'll post on this later).

It’s important to keep stressing that new media has many benefits and that while excessive use can be a problem, it can also have benefits. For example, one interesting study at UCLA found that computer use for older people (aged 55-76) might even increase brain function for some (here). But the overwhelming message that we are receiving from research is that too much television, gaming or computer use can be harmful for children.

From my perspective, as a research interested in children’s early learning, my sense is that we haven’t even begun to consider the questions related to this topic. For example, what is the impact of the loss of play, book reading and human interaction on children? Evidence of a general nature and developmental research, shows that adult child interaction is critical to early emotional and intellectual development. This work alone would suggest that the loss of time spent playing, talking to others, listening to stories and so on, will be detrimental. There are other related questions. Readers of this blog will be ready to ask, how much time is too much? How little time with adults is too little? It’s difficult to answer such questions but here’s are a few suggestions based on what I know of research in learning, interaction, language and communication and emerging work on new media:

Children aged 0-2
  • Constant interaction with adults (preferably a parent) – singing, talking to, providing different experiences, reading to them etc.
  • No TV, videos etc - this is almost impossible if there are older siblings, but there are much more important things to do for the very young child.
Children aged 3-5
  • Shared mealtimes – most if not all.
  • Lots of interaction as part of everyday life – talking with them in the car, in the kitchen, in the bath, while watching TV together.
  • Planned experiences – exploring the garden, the house, the physical environment, creative play, craft, music, and introduction to computer sites for kids (together!), lots of stories read to them (at least 30 minutes a day in several blocks), ‘writing’ and drawing.
  • Deliberate efforts to cultivate shared interests with your children (special TV, favourite past-times or hobbies, music, sport etc).
  • Limited TV or computer use (no more than 60 minutes per day).
Children aged 6-12
  • Shared mealtimes – at least 10 meals a week together (with at least one parent, preferably two if there are two at home).
  • Lots of interaction as part of everyday life – debriefing after school, chatting at mealtime, planned talk (ask them questions) as part of other activities.
  • Planned experiences – provide varied experiences for your children including outings, the movies together, visit the library, shop together, visit people, do some outdoor physical activity together (the pool, some sport, the park etc), develop some shared interests and hobbies – build common ground!
  • Read with them and listen to their reading.
  • Spend some time exploring the Internet with them and not just as part of school activities, show them how to use the Internet as a tool.
  • Try to limit TV and video games to 60-90 minutes per day
Adolescents (aged 13+)
  • Shared mealtimes – at least 6 meals per week together (with at least one parent, preferably two if there are two at home).
  • Lots of interaction – make time to talk and be deliberate about it if they are reluctant. Make the effort, many teenagers find it easy to withdraw from adults, don’t let them!
  • Planned activities – still try to do things together; find common interests, watch some TV together, play some sport or follow their sport, engage yourself in at least one of their interests.
  • Talk about their schoolwork and have active involvement.
  • Encourage and demonstrate wise use of media – don’t give them a TV for their room; avoid providing a state-of-the-art sound system in their room; don’t have a computer in their room have one that they use in a more public space.
  • Open your house to their friends and get to know them as well; make your home welcoming to their friends with you as part of it.
  • Try to discourage large blocks of individual time on computers, playing video games, TV and Internet surfing (2-3 hours a day is more than enough).

While there are wonderful benefits from new media (I'm enjoying one right now!), research is showing us that over-use can be harmful for children. There is a real danger that as parents lives become more busy and complicated that we will allow new media to fill spaces that previously would have been filled by family interaction. We should not allow this to happen if we value the wellbeing of our children and the quality of the relationship that we have with them.

Other posts

Washington Post article, “Media Bombardment Is Linked To Ill Effects During Childhoodhere

Media Awareness Network article, “Television’s Impact on Kidshere

TV Numbs the brainhere

My posts previous posts that address the impact of TV here


Soultravelers3 said...

Excellent post!

As a family on an open ended world tour, we pride ourselves on being a 3 laptop family, but we also are very clear on the dangers with new media and kids.

As homeschoolers, I can not imagine not having all meals together as a family all the time ( with both parents). I also can imagine not having endless hours to read and do self directed play or outdoor activities together.

We have never had a TV or any video games, so do not miss them & probably would never have adapted to our digital lifestyle without this trip.

There are soooo many wonderful opportunities via the internet now for children though, that I hope people do not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

My daughters favorite places are educational fun places like amazing e-libraries and MIT's Scratch.We actually use the internet for her piano lessons from a teacher on another continent!

Webcam skype is also a fabulous way to stay connected to family and friends while immersing deeply in another culture as well as collaborate with other homeschoolers and school kids from around the world!

Just like a good parent takes time to immerse a child in good children's literature, it is very important for today's global citizens of the 21st century to be immersed in the best of the web and web2.0.

Choose the highest quality books with no time limits and the highest quality new media WITH time limits.

Leave LOTS of time for self directed play and exploration of this earth and bonding time with family!

Anonymous said...

Trevor. Many thanks for another great post. It resonates with an essay that I read recently: Linda V. Callahan’s, 'Turning Down the Noise: Reading and the Development of Spirituality in Children', in Nurturing Children’s Spirituality: Christian Perspectives and Best Practices (ed. Holly Catterton Allen; Eugene: Cascade, 2008), 164–80. She observes, among other things, that 61% of American kids up to 6 months old are exposed to screen media daily, and argues that ‘From birth through age two, the rapidly developing human brain is stimulated by creative problem-solving activities, exploration, and manipulation, of things in the environment, and most importantly, by interaction with parents and other people. Because screen media does not provide these types of stimuli, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends no screen media use for children from birth to two years of age [something obviously more difficult to enforce in a multi-kid-aged family!], and no more than one to two hours of media use per day for children over the age of two’. She proceeds to outline some of the costly consequences of ‘the noise’: ‘Their [i.e. childrens’] role as passive viewers increases the prospect of [their] becoming imitators rather than original, inventive, and inspired doers and actors’ and that ‘older youth live vicariously by watching surreal “reality” programs’. The main solution she offers in order to counteract ‘the noise’ is reading in a number of various contexts. To my mind, this seems a healthy alternative, though too limiting if the only one.

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Jason, thanks for your comment. Thanks also for the reference. I'm aware of the basic research that has been picked up by Callahan but I wasn't aware of this reference. I'm going to post on some of these issues later especially because of the interest in Your Baby Can Read. Nice to hear from you. Trevor

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks also to Soultravelers for the excellent comments. Some good suggestions here. Trevor