The vast majority of American children and adolescents has and use multiple electronic devices, often at the same time. Cell phones, iPods, video games, instant messaging, social networks, the Internet, and e-mail have joined television, once the focus of considerable concern. The Future of Children, a collaboration of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and The Brookings Institution, has published a report on children and the electronic media, bringing together the current research examining how exposure to different media forms is linked to child well being.
Children, particularly adolescents, have almost constant access to media--often without adult supervision--and spend more time using media than any single activity except sleeping, the editors noted. Much of the media is so new the effects have yet to be evenly researched, raising questions not only about the effect these technologies are having, but on the methodologies researchers employ to measure them, the editors noted.
Key findings include:
• Content matters. It is the content, not the form of the media, which determines whether the effect is positive or negative. Content designed correctly can enhance learning. Even computer games, which can develop visual spatial skills, can be beneficial.
• Multitasking--doing several things at once--is at an all-time high, creating problems for researchers in trying to measure media usage. Children often are engaged in several tasks simultaneously and experimental protocols have a hard time measuring that.
• Time spent watching television remains constant; children are engaged in other media--sometimes two and three simultaneously--while they watch the TV set.
• Media content designed to promote pro-social behavior does increase social capacities such as altruism, cooperation, and tolerance of others, while news programs and some entertainment can instill fear and anxiety.
• Most on-line conversations are with friends, not strangers. While children sometimes chat with people they do not know, the effects are not necessarily negative.
• Media can enhance healthful behaviors, such as discouraging smoking, using alcohol or drugs, promoting physical activity and safe sex.
• Risky behaviors such as aggression and smoking are strongly linked to media consumption, while others such as obesity and sexual behaviors have not yet been strongly linked. Children who have a heavy-media diet of violence are more likely to perceive the world as a dangerous place and see aggression as more acceptable than children who do not.
• Marketing and advertising are effective and some of the products marketed are not safe or healthful.
• Government regulations will not limit the ill effects of the media because of constitutional restraints.
Infants and toddlers are less influenced than older children by the new media, researchers found, because they need direct exposure and interaction with real people to learn, but by the age of three the media becomes a more effective influence, although attention peaks at one to two hours. Electronic teaching in schools is not necessarily more effective than traditional methods, research has shown.
Additional research is needed to know whether early sexual initiation is linked to media use, researchers said.
The report made several suggestions:
Parents should concentrate on what the children are doing with the media rather than which media they are using or how much time they are spending on them, the editors wrote.
Policy makers have a difficult task balancing constitutional limitations with the desire to provide parents with effective tools to help them regulate media content within their homes, they wrote. The government should sponsor research on educational programs that explore innovative technologies to educate and teach children how to best use the media.
Educators should implement research-based programs to make better use of media in education, which includes training the teachers on the new media, the report said.
The thrust of controlling the effects of the new media rests with families. Parents can put pressures on industry to provide better content, a more meaningful ratings system, cut back on inappropriate advertising, and produce better screening technologies.
"The key," the editors said, "is to shift the focus from the medium to the message."
Jeanne Brooks-Gunn of Columbia University and Elisabeth Hirschhorn Donahue, editor of The Future of Children, edited the report, which includes nine studies.
The full report is online at http://www.princeton.edu/futureofchildren/publications/docs/18_01_FullJournal.pdf