Children and media: Plug in without tuning out
by Dr. Michael Rich
Luke followed us down the hall to the exam room for his annual physical, his mother pouring out her worries: "He used to be the perfect kid — honor roll, basketball team, class secretary, helped out at home," she says of her 15-year-old. "I'm worried he's using drugs, or depressed. Don't tell me it's both!"
Luke — who asked that I not use his last name — wasn't using drugs or depressed, he had just tuned out. He described his family returning home and scattering to their rooms, where his siblings and parents usually watched TV, but he spent hours online, downloading music, IMing friends and playing video games. He was consumed by media.
I can relate. I was a filmmaker for 12 years, working in Hollywood and in Japan, where I had the privilege of working as assistant director to Akira Kurosawa, director of "Seven Samurai" and "Ran." I love movies. When I was younger, I would attend movie marathons, sitting in the dark for up to 20 hours. But as a pediatrician and a parent, I now see the downsides to our love affair with media.
Preschoolers grow overweight staring slack-jawed at the TV. "Cyberbullying" and "sexting" are part of kids' vocabulary. And, movie stars puffing cigarettes are the strongest motivator of youth smoking.
But research has found focused use of educational television by preschoolers can prepare them for academic achievement and prosocial behavior, and those benefits persist through high school. By stepping into "virtual realities" through electronic games, players learn and rehearse behavioral scripts and the Internet equalizes access to information and the ability to be heard.
Media is arguably the most ubiquitous and powerful influence on children, and what we do with it makes all the difference. Many parents though are stuck with their uneasiness and no facts.
At the Center on Media and Child Health, we do research and develop clinical interventions. Most importantly, we translate the science into doable strategies for children and parents, such as keeping TVs and computers out of kids' bedrooms where they are linked with greater screen time, decreased sleep, poorer homework, more obesity and exposure to content, including porn, not normally viewed in a den or living room.
We turn to TV and the Internet to expand our experience, connect with each other and to have fun. And with the right resources, parents can guide their kid's use of media the same way they make choices about safety, education and nutrition. After all, what we feed kids minds' is as important as what we feed their bodies.
When I first met with Luke, I suggested he try working on his laptop in the family room and that his family try to eat dinner together. Only after he met with his college counselor during his junior year of high school, and found his list of college choices dwindling, did he finally take my advice.
Luke "resigned" from his online game guild, started doing his homework, and returned to the basketball team and the honor roll. Today, he's a sophomore at Brown University. He says he's turned his life around, plugging into media as a creative outlet — making videos and playing in a rock band — and unplugging a little as well.
Nicknamed the Mediatrician, Dr. Michael Rich is founder and director of the Center on Media and Child Health at the highly rated Children's Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School. The Hollywood director turned pediatrician has an online advice column, "a lá 'Dear Abby,'" where parents can ask questions about children's media use. For more, visit the center's website at cmch.tv.