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Media Benefits and Dangers

Canadian Study Calls for Greater Responsibility in Use


By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, OCT. 29, 2007 (Zenit) - An explosion in media technology means both parents and society need to be more alert to the dangers children face. This was the warning contained in the Oct. 15 report entitled "Good Servant, Bad Master: Electronic Media and the Family," published by the Ottawa-based Vanier Institute of the Family.

Author Arlene Moscovitch reviewed Canadian and international research on the media, and in her report she acknowledged the positive side of the media, which is a useful source of education and entertainment. As well, new technologies also help families stay in contact with greater ease.

At the same time the report warned of some more negative consequences.

-- Heavy users of electronic media in all age groups spend less time interacting with partners, children and friends.

-- Researchers fear that excessive exposure to media among very young children may lead to problems of attention control, aggressive behavior and poor cognitive development.

-- With growing problems of obesity and diabetes among children, it is a concern that the vast majority of food advertisements during children's programs are for foods high in sugar, salt and fat.

-- Many parents worry about children being online for long periods and the kinds of things to which they are exposed.

Technology overflow

Moscovitch noted that according to the Consumers Electronics Association of America, the average U.S. home now boasts 26 different electronic devices for communication and media. In Canada only 1% of the population owned a DVD player in 1998, now they are present in 80% of households.

Also in Canada, 94% of young people have Internet access at home. Half of grade 11 students, and surprisingly even 20% of those in Grade 4, have their own Internet-connected computer, separate and apart from the family.

Mobile phones are used by 44% of young Canadians to surf the Internet, and 22% have webcams.

Citing data from a time use survey carried out in 1995 by the government body Statistics Canada, the report noted that Canadians aged 15 and over spent just over 2 hours each day watching television, compared to more than 3 hours in 1998.

Radio use remained relatively stable between 1998 and 2003, at about 3 hours a day, but 30-45 more minutes a day is going to telephone usage, and time spent on the Internet has risen.

A study of 5,000 youth carried out in 2005 by the Media Awareness Network found that on an average weekday, Canadian students spend -- sometimes simultaneously -- 54 minutes instant messaging; 50 minutes downloading and listening to music; 44 minutes playing online games; and only 30 minutes doing school work.

Overall, in Canada and the United States many young people are spending less time with print and television media, and more time plugged into interactive media like mobile phones, video games and Internet-connected computers. Moreover, this media activity is increasingly done in their own bedrooms, rather than in communal family spaces.

Infants at risk

One of the main forebodings in the Vanier Institute's report is how very young children are exposed to the media. Moscovitch cited a recent study that showed 50% of U.S. infants and preschoolers live in homes with three or more TVs, 97% have clothes or toys based on media characters and three-quarters share their living space with a computer.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time at all for children under the age of two years, yet a 2003 study of the media habits of U.S. children from birth to six years of age found that almost 70% of children under two years spend on average two hours every day watching either television shows or videos. In fact, 26% of toddlers under the age of two had a TV set in their bedroom.

Other recent reports confirm the deleterious effect of television for the very young. On May 27, the Boston Globe reported that a study by pediatric researchers found that about 40% of 3-month-olds watch television or videos for an average of 45 minutes a day, or more than five hours a week.

The study was based on 1,009 random telephone interviews with families in Minnesota and Washington, and published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine journal.

This early exposure can have a negative impact on an infant's developing brain and put children at a higher risk for attention problems and diminished reading comprehension, according to the researchers.

Social sites

Turning to older ages, the Vanier Institute reported that media usage evolves to become more active and socially oriented. A 2005 study of young Canadians carried out by the Media Awareness Network found that among young people, 28% have their own Web site, 15% have online diaries and blogs, and that by grade nine, 80% of all teens are listening to music online and instant messaging daily.

By late 2006, 55% of all U.S. online teens were using social networks such as MySpace and Facebook, and 55% had created online profiles.

The dangers of social networking sites was confirmed by a report dated Oct. 14, published by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

The study entitled "Teens and Online Stranger Contact" reported that 32% of online teens had been contacted by someone with no connection to them or any of their friends, and 7% of online teens say they have felt scared or uncomfortable as a result of contact by an online stranger.

Those who have posted photos of themselves and created profiles on social networking sites are more likely to have been contacted online by people they do not know, according to the study.

Among teens who have been contacted by someone they do not know, girls are significantly more likely to report feeling scared or uncomfortable as a result of the contact compared with boys.

Parental concerns

Many parents, the Vanier Institute report observed, are uneasy about the media's impact on their children. Apprehensions include not knowing who their children are in contact with, what sort of songs they listen to, and if they are falling prey to temptations such as online gambling and pornography. Moreover, many parents are unskilled in the technologies being employed by their children.

Parents can, however, influence their children's media habits. The report recommends a number of steps.

-- Limit the number of individually owned devices and move them out of bedrooms and into public spaces.

-- Limit the times at which they can be used. For example, don't have the television on all the time, particularly during meals.

-- Limit also the total amount of time kids spend with their devices on a daily basis.

-- Make rules about giving out personal information or visiting certain sites on the Internet.

-- Help children, particularly those who are younger, to distinguish between fantasy and reality by talking with them about the content they encounter in the media.

-- Discuss with children their experiences on the Internet and ask them about the games they play, the sites they create and the way they interact socially.

Forming consciences

The report also recommended that parents help instruct their children in the values they need, and not just leave it to chance through the values that the media communicates. By doing this young people will be more prepared to critically judge the information and goals coming from the media.

"Users should practice moderation and discipline in their approach to the mass media," recommends No. 2496 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. "They will want to form enlightened and correct consciences the more easily to resist unwholesome influences."

A responsibility that becomes more indispensable than ever in this age of rapidly developing media technologies.

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