Kids’ screen times holds promise and peril

Between TV, computers, cell phones and MP3 players, kids consume almost seven hours of media every day, according to a Kaiser Foundation study released in January. And with that screen time comes growing exposure to violence, sex, drugs and advertising that kids simply aren’t equipped to process, says Dr. Victor Strasburger, the lead author of a paper published Monday that warns about the negative impacts of kids’ media habits. The paper, a review of existing research on kids’ health and media, says media has the potential to make kids feel more socially connected and can be a valuable education tool. But lax enforcement of federal regulations and an entertainment industry that continues to push the creative envelope have made the media a pipeline for negative messages, Strasburger says. “It’s not a problem with the medium; it’s a problem with the message,” says Strasburger, chief of adolescent medicine at the University of New Mexico medical school.

Among the paper’s findings:

  • The average 18-year-old has seen an estimated 200,000 acts of violence on television alone.
  • Kids exposed to sexual content are at a higher risk for early sexual behavior and unplanned pregnancy.
  • More than billion is spent each year marketing and advertising tobacco, alcohol and prescription drugs in the United States. Children’s exposure to smoking in movies predicts the likelihood that they will become smokers themselves.

Efforts to help parents control what their kids watch have been largely unsuccessful, Strasburger says. The TV ratings system, which was created in 1996 to mirror movie content ratings on television, are still voluntary and done at the discretion of producers. And as any parent knows, Strasburger says, the “forbidden fruit theory” may actually draw more little eyes to shows with sex and violence.

So what’s a parent to do? First, Strasburger says, make kids’ bedrooms a media-free zone. More than 70 percent of kids report having a TV in their bedroom, and those kids watch at least an hour more television each day and are more likely to be overweight and to smoke.

And learn your child’s screen habits. “Media are evolving every day, and what you grew up with is not what youre children are watching or tweeting or downloading,” Strasburger says.

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