I thought when I chose this topic that I would dash it off quickly, but I found myself doing some research about what we know about how much children in the US use electronic entertainment and the research on what the effects of this are on children. It turns out that we know a lot. We know that on average the use of electronic entertainment went up almost an hour and twenty minutes a day between 2004 and 2010. We also have good research on what behaviors and habits are associated with higher amounts of TV watching, video game playing, and computer games and social media. For my information I am relying on a 2010 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds; a 2003 report by Craig A. Anderson, Ph.D., entitled “Violent Video Games: Myths, Facts, and Unanswered Questions” ; a more recent piece of research by Dr. Anderson, reported on CNN; and fact sheets created by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Lest people think I am a purist who does not have a TV, let me say that I think there are many good uses of electronic entertainment. As my son was growing we had nearly all the current entertainments. As a result, I also know what it is like to try to manage these occupations.

We know that on average children are making great use of electronic media, and that this use starts young. In 2004 the Kaiser Family Foundation found that two thirds of infants and toddlers watched an average of two hours of TV a day. Children under six watched an average of two hours of screen media a day (TV and videos). The use of electronic media makes a sharp increase in middle school. The recent (2010) Kaiser study found that kids aged eight to eighteen spent an average of 7.38 hours a day on electronic entertainment. With multi-tasking (using more than one platform at a time) taken into consideration, the time expands to ten and three quarter hours. Just under 30% of young people said that their parents had rules about use of media. In those families the children watched an average of almost 3 hours less per day. About two thirds of kids say that the TV is on during meals, and almost half say the TV is on most of the time in their homes. About seventy percent of kids report that they have a TV in their bedroom and about half have a video game console there.

What do we know about the effects of media use? Research to date cannot establish definite cause and effect, but it does show strong relationships between amount of media use and certain behaviors. The Kaiser study found that about half of the heavy media users said that they got C’s or lower, while only about a quarter of the light users had grades in that range.

Research by Craig Anderson, Ph.D. shows that children who are exposed to more video game violence become more aggressive over time than similar children who use less violent video games. Dr. Anderson took into account how aggressive the children were at the beginning of the study and controlled for that. This leaves parents with the question of how much is too much. The answer lies in your values in what you see in your child.

Children who watch more than four hours of television a day are more likely to be obese. This is a very serious concern with the rise in obesity and Type II diabetes in children. Excessive TV watching is also associated with decreased reading and decreased exercise. This makes sense — if you are sitting on the couch, you are not involved in active pastimes or reading. In addition, children bombarded with advertising for unhealthy snack foods, and people watching TV are likely to nibble. Research has shown that limiting children’s TV watching decreased their weight gain.

Advertising on TV in general is a concern. Are the ads promoting items that you value? Young children are not able to understand that the advertisers care only about selling their product whether it is good for you or not. Parents can begin to teach grade school children about this; you can educate them about the ways that advertisers try to fool you into buying something. But advertisements are highly sophisticated, and they can promote a world vision that says you need to get the next big thing to be content. It is worth thinking about how much TV advertising has to do with your child’s desire for stuff. It is worth asking yourself whether the ads on television are promoting values you want for your child.

Children who view violent acts on television are more likely to show aggressive behavior and are more likely to fear danger in the world and worry that something bad will happen. That is, there is an increase in aggressive behavior and anxiety in these children. There are thousands of violent images portrayed on television. Often violence is perpetrated by the “good guys” as they fight the “bad guys.” While you teach your child not to use violence to solve problems, he or she is views the opposite in a character he or she might admire. Young children have difficulty distinguishing fact from fiction, so it is difficult to reassure them that the kinds of violence they see on television are unlikely to happen in your neighborhood. In my practice lately I have met middle school age children who have been frightened by television violence or movie advertisements. These children know that what they see is not fact, but the images are compelling. Suddenly these children are afraid to go to sleep at night for days on end.

Television characters often engage in other risky behavior, such as drinking, smoking, and sexual behavior, that most parents would want their children to avoid. There is research that links the amount of sexual content viewed on television to earlier sexual behavior. Even the comedies that are aimed at families make jokes about sexual behavior. If you watch any sports, you have seen a great many advertisement for beer and other alcohol. It appears that attractive people have the most fun when they are drinking. While cigarettes are not advertised on television, the characters on television can smoke and provide an example of “coolness” while smoking. Research on smoking behavior shows that children who watch five or more hours of television a day are more likely to smoke than those who watch two hours or less.

This is some of what we know about the effects of excessive use of electronic media on children today. Electronic media are not bad in and of themselves. There is a great deal of useful content and fine entertainment available. I know that many parents feel that their children watch too much television or play video games too much or are distracted by Facebook while doing homework. Yet they feel powerless to do much about it. In my next newsletter I will discuss some of the ways that parents can monitor their children’s exposure — in terms of content and amount. I will also cover the recommendations of health experts for children’s use of electronic media. It is certainly a complicated world, and it will only get more so as more different types of media are introduced.

Author's Bio: 

Parent Coach and Licensed Psychologist, Carolyn Stone, Ed.D. (www.drcarolynstone.com) educates parents of children with learning disabilities, ADHD, Asperger Syndrome and anxiety about their children’s needs using humor and evidence-based practices. Parents learn new strategies through role play and homework. She teaches children to manage their anxiety and attention and to understand their learning styles. You can learn about Dr. Stone’s work from her blog at http://www.drcarolynstone.com/blog/.