|Michael Rich, MD, MPH
What is the Center on Media and
The idea behind the center is to gather together a multi-disciplinary
group to conduct and collect rigorous scientific research on the
positive and negative effects of the media on children's health.
We started it in late 2002, but independently I've been doing work
in this field for more than 10 years. I was a filmmaker for 12 years,
but had a mid-life crisis and went to medical school. My true love
is finding ways to use the very powerful and ubiquitous media to
enhance and promote child health, while making sure that unthinking
media consumption doesn't hurt children and adolescents.
What are the goals of the center?
We're looking at every aspect of the interface between media and
health. We are interested in learning to live with media in ways
that are healthy and safe. I'd like to find ways to use them—as
they are some of the most potent tools we have in society today—to
promote physical and mental health in kids.
Is the center unique to Children's?
While there are researchers in fields, such as communications or
developmental psychology, who have investigated media effects, the
unique approach we take at Children's is to focus on health as the
outcome of interest.
How does the media affect kids' health?
The average American kid between 8 and 18 years old is exposed to
nearly eight hours of media a day, sometimes multitasking with music,
television and the Internet. Fifty years of research—particularly
in the area of television—indicates there are undeniable effects
of media exposure on the physical and mental health of children
For example, there are several studies that indicate
that the number of hours a child watches television corresponds
to the amount that he or she is overweight. There is also evidence
that a child's attitude toward the use of tobacco, alcohol and other
drugs is strongly influenced by media portrayals of cool, attractive
movie stars using them. In addition, recent research indicates that
kids who watch more sexual material on television have double the
risk of initiating sex, compared to kids who are not as exposed.
And finally, there is a large body of research demonstrating that
watching violence on television can make kids more aggressive in
their thoughts and behaviors.
What can parents do to change the media's
negative effects on their children?
Parents need to understand that the use of media will change their
child. Their child will learn things from what he sees, hears or
plays in an interactive game. Even though parents often feel as
if they're facing this huge marketing juggernaut that's got billions
of dollars behind it to sell everything to their kids, from the
music and movies to the clothes they wear, parents do have control
of the situation. They can remember that the billions of dollars
in the entertainment industry started in their pockets, and they
can vote with their wallet.
What are some positive ways that media
can be used?
I've developed a research methodology called Video Intervention/Prevention
Assessment (VIA), where I gave kids video camcorders and had them
make video diaries of their lives with illness. I asked kids with
asthma to use video to teach me about asthma, because they're the
real experts; they live with it 24/7.
What happened was very interesting. With the camcorder,
they felt safe telling their clinicians what they wouldn't tell
us in person. It was like being in a confessional. Who would have
ever thought that kids don't take their asthma medicine because
they feel ashamed? Information is a source of power. If we give
kids control over the information stream, they'll tell us stuff
we'd never have learned another way.
We've applied VIA to asthma, obesity and now we're
doing a longitudinal study with young people with chronic conditions
as they deal with the transition from childhood to adulthood. It
brings patients to the table as an equal partner in their own health
How does the center apply its research?
Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics
and the American Medical Association, use our research to guide
their policies. The U.S. Government, in the form of the Senate or
House Committees, has also asked me to testify on media effects
on violence or sexual behavior.
However, what interests me most is getting this
information to the children and parents who can most benefit from
it. We are about to launch our Web site (www.cmch.tv),
which will provide a comprehensive database of the research on how
media affects the health of children. It will be accessible to parents
and kids, as well as to researchers and clinicians. We've written
synopses of the research for the general public, so parents can
use the site to determine what media is safe and healthy for their
children. There will also be a section with educational games that
will help kids learn how they can and why they should evaluate the
media they use. Kids hate to feel like the wool is being pulled
over their eyes, so when they start to realize how they're being
manipulated by media and advertising, they become the best teachers
and leaders of others. We're hoping to start that groundswell.