TV As Teacher
    By Becky Jungbauer | June 5th 2009 10:10 AM | 9 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Becky

    A scientist and journalist by training, I enjoy all things science, especially science-related humor. My column title is a throwback to Jane


    View Becky's Profile
    The media is a powerful teacher of children and adolescents, an editorial in JAMA says. But what are they learning, and how can it be modified? "When children and adolescents spend more time with media than they do in school or in any leisure-time activity except for sleeping, much closer attention should be paid to the influence media has on them."

    Editorial author Victor C. Strasburger writes:

    A kinder, gentler, more responsive public media would be nice but is unlikely. Hollywood has been resistant to any outside criticism, the Motion Picture Association of America ratings have remained closed to scrutiny for decades, and the TV ratings are not understood by most parents. The Internet cannot be regulated. More graphic violence on TV shows and movies, more sexual suggestiveness in primetime shows, and more edgy advertising can be expected in the future. Easier access to media will occur as cell phones are used to download TV shows and movies, and soon a personal Internet device (about the size of a paperback book) will allow instant online access anytime and anywhere. Therefore, the solution to children's exposure to inappropriate media cannot rely on its producers.
    There have been a number of studies on the media's influence on its viewers, especially children, and while it's hard to directly correlate the effects of TV viewing on children's actions, the association is definitely there.

    Strasburger says physicians underestimate the influence of media on children. On average, kids spend more than 6 hours a day with media (more than they spend in the classroom) - two-thirds of U.S. kids have a TV in their bedrooms, half have a VCR or DVD player, half have a video game console, and almost one-third have Internet access or a computer. This, naturally, makes monitoring media use difficult.
    The American Academy of Pediatrics has a policy that recommends limiting media use to 1-2 hours per day, but a recent survey (n=365 pediatricians) found that only half agreed with the policy, while half were not interested in learning more about media effects on their patients through media education. Yikes. Considering what the media can influence - sex, drugs, aggressive behavior, obesity, eating disorders, suicide - isn't this something physicians should consider?

    Contribution to many health problems

    The media are not the leading cause of any pediatric health problem in the United States, Strasburger writes, but they do make a substantial contribution to many health problems, including the following:

    Violence. Research on media violence and its relationship to real-life aggression is substantial and convincing. Young persons learn their attitudes about violence at a very young age and, once learned, those attitudes are difficult to modify. Conservative estimates are that media violence may be associated with 10% of real-life violence. Office counseling about media violence and guns could reduce violence exposure for an estimated 800,000 children per year.

    Sex. Several longitudinal studies have linked exposure to sex in the media to earlier onset of sexual intercourse, and 8 studies have documented that giving adolescents access to condoms does not lead to earlier sexual activity. The media represent an important access point for birth control information for youth; however, the major networks continue to balk at airing contraception advertisements at the same time they are airing unprecedented amounts of sexual situations and innuendoes in their prime-time programs.

    Witnessing smoking scenes in movies may be the leading factor associated with smoking initiation among youth. In addition, young persons can be heavily influenced by alcohol and cigarette advertising. More than $20 billion a year is spent in the United States on advertising cigarettes ($13 billion), alcohol ($5 billion), and prescription drugs ($4 billion).

    Obesity. Media use is implicated in the current epidemic of obesity worldwide, but it is unclear how. Children and adolescents view an estimated 7500 food advertisements per year, most of which are for junk food or fast food. Contributing factors to obesity may include that watching television changes eating habits and media use displaces more active physical pursuits.

    Eating Disorders.
    The media are a major contributor to the formation of an adolescent's body self-image. In Fiji, a naturalistic study of teenaged girls found that the prevalence of eating disorders increased dramatically after the introduction of American TV programs.

    These points, taken from Strasburger's editorial, touch on some of the negatives of media's influence. But what about the positive ways we can use media to teach children?

    At the same time, clinicians need to recognize the extraordinary positive power of the media. Antiviolence attitudes, empathy, cooperation, tolerance toward individuals of other races and ethnicities, respect for older people—the media can be powerfully prosocial. Media can also be used constructively in the classroom in ways that are better than traditional textbooks. For instance, middle school students are often assigned to read Romeo and Juliet as their first exposure to Shakespeare. Might it not be more effective, given that Shakespeare wrote his plays to be observed and not to be read, to watch one of the at least 10 different versions available on DVD? Reading Civil War history using a textbook pales in comparison to watching a TV documentary bring history to life. What could be a more entertaining way to teach high school physics than using episodes of Mythbusters? In addition, no drug or sex education program is complete without a media component.

    I agree 100% with his idea. While sometimes videos can be a cop-out for lazy teachers, they can also be used as powerful teaching tools. I remember watching movies in class, and then dissecting them to compare history with fiction. My professors also used videos as ways to open up new cultures - we'd have themed days where we would watch a foreign film (or film concerning that culture), cook ethnic food and really try to get a flavor for who the people are. That's much more powerful to me than just reading a chapter in a textbook. On the social side, consider kids' views of homosexuality before and after Will&Grace, Ellen, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

    Firearms and Smoking

    Two research letters published in the same JAMA issue directly address effects of firearms and smoking in movies on adolescent behavior.

    Firearms. Tongren and colleagues write that in 2005, 1,453 firearm deaths occurred among children in the U.S. (8.2% of deaths among 1-17 year olds). "Mass media have been reported to influence children's behavior toward violence," the write, and "from 1995 to 2002, 34% of G- and PG-rated movies with the highest U.S. box-office gross revenues depicted use of firearms."

    The authors examined movies released 2003-2007 to determine whether the depiction of firearms in movies marketed for children had changed. Of 125 movies, 67 (54%) met the inclusion criteria for the study with 5 G-rated movies (7%) and 62 PG-rated (93%). Eighteen movies (27%) depicted characters with firearms. The study also found that almost all firearm users were adult males, and movies rarely showed the consequences of firearm use, including injury or death.

    Smoking. Sargent and Heatherton write that the NCI reports that the "total weight of evidence" from studies "indicates a causal relationship between exposure to depictions of smoking in movies and youth smoking initiation. Attributable risk estimates suggest that movie smoking accounts for one-third to one-half of adolescent smoking onset."j

    They examined current (past 30-day) smoking among U.S. 8th graders with smoking in popular movies. The geometric mean for movie smoking was 3.5 occurrences in 1990 and 0.23 in 2007, so portrayal of smokers decreased. Smoking among 8th graders increased in the early 1990s and then declined from a peak of 21.0% in 1996 to 7.1% in 2007.

    The authors note that the main limitation of this study "is that it is an ecological analysis and can only demonstrate association. Nonetheless, the downward trend in movie smoking is consistent with an influence on downward trends in adolescent smoking." The increase in the early 1990s could be attributed to a lag in awareness of portrayal of smoking effects in the movie industry, as well as external marketing campaigns by tobacco companies.

    Why should we care?

    If you don't think media influences children, I'm not sure what will convince you. But think about it this way: if they aren't, why are there so many commercials on TV? Wouldn't that mean advertisers are just throwing money away?

    Strasburger suggests pediatricians should ask patients (or their caregivers) if there is a TV in their bedroom, and how many hours per day they spending using media. He also suggests researchers should include media when considering behavioral effects and modifications - we don't exist in a vacuum.

    What do you think? Does TV influence children's health behaviors? Should we try to modify content? Should physicians get involved?


    If you don't think media influences children, I'm not sure what will convince you. But think about it this way: if they aren't, why are there so many commercials on TV? Wouldn't that mean advertisers are just throwing money away?
    If media doesn't influence children, why does the advertising industry spend money on employing or retaining behavioural psychologists?
    Gerhard Adam

    I agree completely with your perspective and the presentation of the problem.  However, instead of attempting to regulate the media, the simplest solution is to get children away from it.

    I can appreciate that this may not be an easy task, but one of the primary differences between people of my generation (trust me, it's older than yours), and many younger people is the range of outside activities and time spend outside.  It's no coincidence that young people are facing an obesity epidemic that coincidences with 6 hours of media presentation daily.  It is the combination of these two issues that represents one of the real problems, which is the lack of interaction and entertainment away from the electronics.

    I happen to be very fortunate and have capitalized on it with my grandkids.  My oldest granddaughter doesn't watch as much television because her absolute joy is to spend hours and hours in the barn with her horses.  I've seen her lay in the grass holding a lead rope with her pony grazing next to her for hours. 

    I wish we could introduce more activities like this to bolster a child's interest in something other than the self-absorbed activities that represent today's electronic entertainment.  In short, the problem isn't the media, but rather the events that lead children from playing outside to being cloistered in their rooms gazing at their TVs with their video games and DVDs.

    Mundus vult decipi
    Gerhard Adam
    On a slightly different note, another effect of video games, which I think is insidious, is the illusion that one is accomplishing something useful.

    Many of the most popular games are like Guitar Hero, or Rock Band, etc.  The irony is that these games may be more expensive that the actual instruments that they are emulating (in many cases).   It teaches bad habits which can never be translated to an actual instrument and fosters the illusion that mastering a nonsensical game (emulating some entertainment hero) is actually better than doing the work so that you can play the instrument yourself (and maybe become an entertainment hero).

    It is this separation from reality that will mark the next big problem facing the new generation as they approach adulthood.  They will never have learned how to apply knowledge to the real world, or taught the work that may be necessary to achieve it.  Instead they will have come to expect the "easy" answers provided by video games instead of the real-world cost of participating.

    NOTE:  This is precisely some of the same nonsense I see from the wannabes that play the war games. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    "On a slightly different note, another effect of video games, which I think is insidious, is the illusion that one is accomplishing something useful."

    Same thing with college.

    You are on the right path. I will add that we should also look at our fear-mongering parental culture. Parents are afraid to let their children out of the house...why? Because parents watch too much tv, too (aka Nancy Grace). It seems as though mothers actually believe that there is going to be a child-molester in their backyard if they allow their kids to play unsupervised there.

    I don't know about you, but when I was a kid, we were actually allowed to go outside and play! There were dozens of us - we rode our bikes to each other's houses; even to (gasp!) the store where there might have been *strangers*!

    In today's society, parents are condemned by their peers for allowing their children to be left alone for even one minute until the magic age of 11. I am not saying that parents should go cavorting around town and leave their kids at home to cook and clean...but I do think that Jimmy and Susie, once they are old enough to ride a bike without training wheels, should be allowed to ride.

    Independence breeds curiosity and exploration. We, as a culture, have denied our children their natural curiosity and have doomed them to be slaves to the mediocrity of television because we are terrified to let them make a mistake.

    Carl Jung said, "Error is just as important a condition of life as truth." I personalize this quote by phrasing it somewhat backwards: There is neither truth or error - so just go out there and have fun!

    The connection between media and actual antisocial behavior is next to nil. Assuming that the 10% you cite is an reliable number, it is (at best) a correlation. 90% of anti-social behavior would derive from non-media sources, but instead you fixate on a boob, gun or a cigarette being shown on TV.

    The trend of two-income families (& resultant lack of parental oversight) would seem to be a stronger factor, but instead you want to censor TV. I understand that you don't want to imply that women working outside the home is causing juvenile delinquency, but the whole "I am not failing as a parent, it's all TV's fault" is a rather tedious form of distraction.

    Becky Jungbauer
    It is a correlation, and it's only one part of a larger spectrum contributing to problems with violence and other harmful behaviors. I don't suggest anything differently. Nor do I want to censor TV, or use the TV as an excuse for bad parenting. I'm not sure how you got that from this article. Media is a contributor, but neither necessary nor sufficient for a kid to make bad choices. It is something that hasn't traditionally been incorporated into behavioral research studies, and I thought the author made an interesting point that it should be included.
    As a teenager myself, I have to agree with this article and disagree with Douglas. I'm sorry, but using the media as a scapegoat for bad behaviour is just a lie. I've personaly seen how 'entertainment heros' have influenced my peers in a negative way. Kids that want to be famous and wear the same brands and jewlery as some 'artists' do in thier music videos. It's nice that you point out how negative effects of gun and drug use are convienently left out of TV-shows and movies.

    However, again from personal experiance, when horrifying truths are revealed, I've heard teenagers say these people are 'weak', and/or, 'I would never do that, that'll never happen to me!'

    Apparently seeing someone dying from an overdose of herion is ammusing in some way. It always seems to be hard for teenagers to take subjects like this seriously, fearing they themselves will feel 'weak' for showing emotion over something that, after all, could never happen to them.

    I hate how my peers seem so easily influenced by the media.

    That, to me, is very weak.

    The actual physical media are wonderful - what we casually call "the media" are the content providers, and they are a blight on human culture!

    Parents can control content, so that's my only advice. I've heard parents happily let their kids play destructive video games in the privacy of their bedrooms and yet censor real news footage to "protect them". Warped or what?! Real violence is not glamorous; for one thing, it's painful.

    Violent video games make more aggressive kids. Doh!!