We rarely see stories in the media about the social effects of the media—and even rarer are stories that look at the issue in serious depth. This absence of coverage is a remarkable and ongoing phenomenon. We’ve commented elsewhere about how detached the media business is from academic media studies and scientific research. When it comes to reporting on how media affect society, the detachment looks more like a gaping abyss.
Our latest case in point is the release last month of research documenting the relationship between media exposure and a variety of unhealthy behaviors in children. Entitled Media + Child and Adolescent Health: A Systematic Review, the study clearly demonstrates that the more time kids spend with media, the more problems they develop in a variety of areas: obesity, academic achievement, sexual behavior, ADHD, and substance abuse.
This project is a meta-analysis, a review of 173 different research studies. According to its cosponsors, the National Institutes of Health and Common Sense Media (a nonpartisan advocacy group), these are “the best studies on media and child health published in the last 28 years.” Fully 80 percent of the studies reviewed found that increased exposure to media led to in unhealthy behavior. The research confirmed that the more time children spend with media, the more likely they are to develop unhealthy behavior. In the case of smoking, academic performance, and sexual behavior, multiple studies also found that media content could influence behavior, in both negative and positive ways.
We should note that the studies examined the nonadvertising content of television, film, digital media, music, and magazines. Heaven only knows what the results would have been if they had measured the effects of advertising.
What especially interests us is that several hundred experts conducting different studies across a two-decade span reached such a high level of consensus. Here at The Magazinist we’re neither statisticians nor sociologists, but it looks to us as if the conclusion is pretty much beyond debate. Yes, increased media exposure results in unhealthy behavior in children and adolescents.
Incidentally, the same thing holds true on the subject of violence in the media: increased exposure to media violence results in increasingly violent behavior in children. Mainstream media consistently treat this as an open question, despite the fact that medical professionals and social scientists reached consensus years ago. (The Media + Child survey didn’t include media violence in the areas it covered because so many other studies have already concluded that the connection is proved and that the case is closed.)
Given the amount of time that children spend with media, we could call the results of the Media + Child analysis a statement of the obvious. According to the study, the average American child spends 45 hours per week with media—more than six hours per day, day in and day out. That’s 28 hours more per week than the average kid spends with parents, and 15 hours more per week than the average kid spends at school. Violence? Obesity? Substance abuse? Considering the media bombardment our children receive, it’s not surprising to find a negative influence. It’s a small miracle that the country isn’t overrun by overweight, criminal teenage addicts… though that may be only a matter of time.
We don’t think mainstream media refuse to tackle this issue because they’re afraid to admit culpability. We think they refuse to tackle this issue because it’s hard to know what to do about it. To say that parents need to monitor their children’s media consumption is a staggering understatement. It’s also ridiculous, considering that parents are getting about one third as much time with their kids as the kids spend with media. But what’s the alternative? Any meaningful regulation would run hard up against the First Amendment. And it’s a long shot to imagine that the media are likely to change programming in response to media research.
But it may not be asking too much to say that covering the research would be a small step in the right direction. If this isn’t news, what is?
One last note. The Child + Media survey did not include either books or newspapers. We find it hard to believe that these influence kids’ behavior in the same way that TV or movies do. We suspect that time spent with either medium is likely to lead to healthier, not unhealthier behavior. And we think that if newspapers gave more coverage to the social effects of media, both the papers and their readers might benefit.