Over the last few decades, parents, educators, and healthcare professionals have expressed concern about the various effects that entertainment media such as television, videogames, movies, and music videos can have on children. The major concerns are that these media may encourage children to engage in antisocial or harmful behaviors or limit their physical activities. However, some parents, educators, and healthcare professionals also recognize positive effects that these media can have, such as educational value. As with many other types of media, electronic entertainment media can have both positive and negative effects depending on which specific media children view and how much time they spend viewing the media.
Time Spent by Children Viewing Entertainment Media
Before addressing what negative and positive effects exist, the scope of the issue needs discussion. Obviously, the less that children watch entertainment media, the less effect it would have on them, either positive or negative. In a study by Ray and Jat (2010) it was noted that “A national Kaiser Family Foundation (US) survey found that children aged 8 to 18 years had an average media usage time of 6 hours and 21 minutes daily” (561). According to that same Kaiser survey, it appears that children’s time watching entertainment media increases dramatically between the time they are young children and when they are older children or adolescents, from roughly two to three hours per day as young children watching television and DVDs to over six hours per day as they approach adulthood” (Anderson and Pempek, 2005, 506-507). Overall the data show that children spend a good bit of time watching entertainment media, making it more likely that the effects of viewing would be significant rather than minimal.
Television and Children
More research has been conducted on television’s effects on children than has been done about the effects of other entertainment media. While some research has been conducted on the effects on children of all ages, recently research has also focused specifically on the effects of television viewing on young children. Generally speaking the effects on children younger than two years of age appear to be minimal, largely because until children are around 30 months old, they do not possess the cognitive and linguistic development necessary to understand and process most of what they see on screen (Anderson, 2005, p. 507). Some evidence exists that children under 24 months can learn to imitate behavior shown on television, although not as well as they imitate behavior they see in real life (Anderson, 2005, p. 511). Theoretically, at least, very young children can learn from watching television shows that are produced specifically for them. Nevertheless, the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation is that children under 24 months not watch television (2001). As noted by Anderson (2005), children two or older can learn vocabulary from television. However, in studies that have been conducted, increased viewing by children of television is linked to a smaller vocabulary but an increased amount of speaking (Anderson, 2005, p.212). From these studies, it appears that the effects are mixed between positive and negative; however, it may well be that if parents used time to increase their children’s vocabulary through other means such as reading to them, then the positive effect of children being more willing to speak could be increased.
Various other studies have examined the link between television viewing and several mental and physical health issues. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, there is evidence substantiating a link between increased viewing of television and children experiencing problems such as violence, aggressive behavior, early sexuality, negative body images, lower academic performance, obesity, and substance abuse (2001, p. 423-424). However, other experts have pointed out that violence depicted on television and other media “can provide a fantasy world in which children are able to express certain levels of anger and aggression without harming others and provide a safe place for children to experiment with activities that may be unacceptable in real life” (Brocato, 2010, p. 96). In addition, some of the studies showing links between television viewing and mental and physical problems appear to be flawed in their design and data collection somewhat; for example, they tend not to have control groups because the researchers cannot locate groups of children who have had no exposure to entertainment media who are also willing to participate in clinical studies (Oakes, 2009, p. 1142). Brocato (2010) also points out that violence in media is only one factor in predicting aggressive behavior in children (p. 96); it is likely that several factors combine to produce violent or aggressive behavior in older children. On the other hand, studies show that children who watched violent advertisements immediately expressed violent thoughts more often than children who watched nonviolent commercials did (Brocato, 2010, p. 104). One interesting finding from those studies is that if parents watch the television programs and commercials with their children, then the expression of violent thoughts decreases when compared to children who view them alone (Brocato, 2010, p. 104). In terms of positive effects, the American Academy of Pediatrics notes that television programs can benefit children by portraying positive social behaviors such as sharing and cooperation (2001, p. 423).
Overall, the picture of what positive and negative effects television can have on children is complex, at best. Reviewing the literature on these effects shows that more and better focused research needs to be done to demonstrate any actual causal relationship between television and negative effects. In addition, because parents can control which shows their children watch and how much time they spend watching television, it seems clear that parents could minimize the negative effects of watching television if they chose to do so. Finally, if television shows can improve children’s willingness to express themselves verbally and model positive behaviors, then parents and the entertainment industry can work together to increase positive benefits.
Other Entertainment Media and Children
As noted earlier, much less research has been conducted on the effects on children of other entertainment media such as movies, videogames, and music videos. One issue that has received attention is the relationship between smoking and alcohol consumption shown in movies and whether children who see those activities are more likely to engage in those activities. According to studies reviewed by Charlesworth and Glantz (2005), good evidence strongly links adolescents watching smoking in movies and subsequently beginning to smoke (p. 1516). In a similar study, Koordeman et al (2010) found that when young males watch alcohol consumption in movies, their alcohol consumption increases but for young females no such increase occurs (p. 547). For positive effects, studies have shown that movie viewers often retain scientific knowledge from movies better than scientific knowledge they acquire through print media (Barriga, 2010, p. 4), but that positive effect is balanced by the drawback that if the scientific information is incorrect, then viewers will retain incorrect scientific information.
Videogames have also been blamed for violent or aggressive behavior, but as with television viewing and violence, more and better research needs to be conducted before an actual cause and effect relationship can be definitely established. However, videogames have been linked to an increase in epileptic seizures for photosensitive children (Griffiths, 2004, p. 339). Griffiths points out, though, that “What is clear from the case studies displaying the more negative consequences of playing is that they all involved people who were excessive users of videogames. From prevalence studies in this area, there is little evidence of serious acute adverse effects on health from moderate play”(p. 340). Griffiths goes on to present studies showing positive effects when videogames are used by children receiving chemotherapy, physical rehabilitation, pain management, and sickle cell treatment (p. 340). Playing videogames seems to distract children from the pain, nausea, and boredom associated with these treatments.
Music videos have also not received extensive study in terms of effects on children. Ashby and Rich (2005) note that watching music videos is linked to the same negative effects associated with any entertainment media, such as desensitization to violence and increased use of alcohol and cigarettes (p. 376). However, there are positive effects associated with music videos. As noted by Ashby and Rich, in studies conducted on the issue, “Adolescents reported that they learned how to play musical instruments, dance, dress, or relate to others from watching [music videos]. They indicated that images enhanced their enjoyment of the music and helped them to understand the message of a song where the lyrics alone were less well-understood” (p. 372).
In considering the overall effects that entertainment media have on children, several things seem clear. Any of these media can have both positive and negative effects on children. However, it is a mistake to focus on entertainment media as the sole cause for problems that children may experience, such as tendencies toward aggressive behavior, violence, use of alcohol, tobacco, or other substances, risky sexual behavior, and so forth. As Oakes (2009) commented, the context of children viewing entertainment media plays a significant role in determining the effects. For example, a child who grows up in a family that encourages sufficient physical exercise might have no effect of obesity from watching television, while a child who grows up in a family that places little or no value on physical exercise might become more sedentary from watching excessive television (p. 1142). It seems clear that parents can increase positive effects and decrease negative effects by following some common sense guidelines, such as not allowing excessive viewing of entertainment media that contains negative behaviors. In addition, when viewing media with negative or risky behaviors, parents can use the content as a starting point to discuss issues such as violence, substance abuse, and sex. As noted earlier, most of the negative effects are linked to excessive viewing of entertainment media. Children use entertainment media as a way to discover more about the world and people around them and to develop their own identity. Moderation in viewing entertainment video can provide benefits such as learning, while decreasing possible negative effects.
American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Public Education. Children, adolescents, and television. (2001). Pediatrics, 107(2), 423.
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