Parents Beware

Studies Show Negative Impact of Media

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By Teresa Tomeo

ALEXANDRIA, Virginia, DEC. 15, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Does watching sex and aggression on TV and in video games lead teens to have sex and be more aggressive in real life? Two studies published by the journal of the American Pediatrics Association say yes.

"Does Watching Sex on Television Predict Teen Pregnancy? Findings from a National Longitudinal Survey of Youth," conducted by the Rand Corporation, and "Longitudinal Effects of Violent Video Games on Aggression in Japan and the United States," by Craig A. Anderson, director of Iowa State University's Center for the Study of Violence, appeared in the November issue of "Pediatrics." Both studies showed a correlation between the behaviors witnessed on TV or in video games and a change of behavior in adolescent.

Kristen Fyfe, the senior writer for the Culture and Media Institute, analyzed those studies and shared with ZENIT some advice for parents before they head out the door with their Christmas shopping list to grab that video game or new iPod for their teen.

Q: In your report "Sex and Aggression: the Media Impact on Children," you analyze two recent and very eye-opening studies that link the content of TV shows to teen pregnancy. Why are these two studies so significant?

Fyfe: The reports are significant for many reasons, most prominently because they are longitudinal -- in other words the same groups of kids were studied over a period of several years. Many studies, equally valid, don't measure outcomes over time but rather in "snap shot" form. These studies factored in the growth/development and maturation of the kids studied. In addition, with regard to the teen pregnancy link, this is one of the first studies to make the connection between watching any kind of sexually themed TV content -- including innuendo/inexplicit content -- with teen pregnancy.

Further they looked at girls and boys -- the girls who get/got pregnant and the boys who helped make it happen. With regard to the study on video game playing and aggression, the other aspect of the study that makes it particularly significant is the cross-cultural component. Researchers looked at children/teens in America and Japan. The fact that Japanese culture is generally less aggressive than American culture is significant because in this study Japanese children had the same outcomes as their American counterparts.

Q. What do parents need to know when it comes to how the media are impacting the lives of their children and families?

Fyfe: Parents need to know that the amount of media and the kinds of media kids consume have a real negative impact. There is a new report out that is a meta-analysis -- a study of studies -- of media influence and shows conclusively that there is a strong correlation between greater exposure to media and adverse health outcomes -- including changes in the way the brain develops, obesity, increased aggression, increased sexual activity, drug and alcohol use and low academic achievement. See the New York Times article on this latest release: www.nytimes.com.

Q: As a Catholic parent yourself, what did you take away from these studies?

Fyfe: As a Catholic parent these studies only reinforce my conviction that it is our God-given responsibility to shepherd our children through a cultural minefield that seeks to undermine God's best for them. When I teach CCD to my 8th graders and we talk about "worshipping false gods" I challenge them with the idea that anything they spend an inordinate amount of time and energy on is an idol -- especially if God comes in second to that obsession. And I ask them point blank -- do you spend more time thinking about God or listening to your iPod/playing video games/watching TV? They get really uncomfortable when confronted like this.

The other thing I try to be mindful of is the reality that my kids are going to have to navigate this media minefield and I can't protect them from it by simply unplugging it or forbidding them to watch/play/listen. I have to equip them to make good choices and to recognize the unholy values promoted in much of what they see. I don't believe in today's society that parents do their kids any favors by shielding them completely from media. They are surrounded by it and need to master it in order to compete as adults. However, we can teach them, set boundaries and challenge them to be critical consumers. And yes we can even do that with little ones.

Q: Considering what these studies revealed, are there any particular items that parents should be aware of this Christmas when it comes to media related products on their children's Christmas list such as particular video games, movies, or particular types of cell phones or electronic devices?

Fyfe: Parents need to do their homework and not believe the hype. Use the ratings systems on video games. If they are rated "M" (mature) there's a reason for that. Use the good resources provided by the Parents Television Council and Focus on the Family to research the content of video games. Focus's publication "Plugged In Online" also gives good reviews of movies, books and music. When it comes to cell phones and iPods realize that anything that can access the Internet becomes a vehicle through which questionable content can be viewed. More kids are watching TV via mobile devices and home computers than on the regular old TV these days. Finally, do not buy a TV or computer for a child's room. There is ample research out there that shows kids with those devices in their room suffer a decline in their academic performance. In short: be the parent!

Q: A study by the Barna Group released at this time last year showed that despite the concerns Christian parents have about media influence they still feel pressured to buy questionable video games or other media products. Is this changing?

Fyfe: I don't think so. Again this comes back to the idea that sometimes being the parent means making unpopular choices. When I'm confronted with this quandary I often ask: Would you allow your kids to hang out with sexually promiscuous, drug abusing, narcissistic, violent friends? That's exactly what you're doing when you allow kids unfettered access to questionable media products. We can't teach our kids to stand up to bad influences if we, as parents, are not willing to stand up to the pressure to buy the questionable product just because it's popular. Seriously, if it were anything other than media products (games, movies, music, books) would we even hesitate to make the hard choice?

Q: Do you find that parents are starting to take the issues more seriously before hitting the stores?

Fyfe: I think parents are becoming more educated and if there is any blessing in the miserable economy it may be that parents are more discriminating about what they buy. But really, until the media -- and by that I mean news media, advertising media -- puts some muscle into the message of the detrimental effects (like they've done with smoking) parents aren't going to pay attention and will not take it seriously.

Q: Can you give parents some suggestions on positive media items on the market today? Any recommendations?

Fyfe: When it comes to video games, those rated "E" are always a safe bet. And the products for the Wii gaming system that get kids up off the couch are great. You can work up a sweat playing Wii tennis!

As for DVDs, "Narnia II: Prince Caspian" is now out on DVD, as are "The Longshots," "Fly Me to the Moon" and "Wall-E."

Truthfully, if I were shopping for positive media items I'd probably bypass the big-box retailers and head to my neighborhood Christian store.

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On the Net:

More resources recommended by the Culture and Media Institute:

The Parents Television Council: www.Parentstv.org

Focus on the Family's "Plugged In Online": www.pluggedinonline.com

National Institute on Media and the Family: www.mediafamily.org

Common Sense Media: www.commonsensemedia.org