There's no question that American children are growing up with unprecedented amounts—and forms—of media. Research shows that they spend more than six hours a day online, on cell phones, playing video games, listening to iPods and watching TV and movies. But the short- and long-term effects of this over-stimulus package are under debate: Are kids consuming media or are media consuming them? Some pundits insist that they boost knowledge, tolerance and self-image, while others claim they hamper the development of real-life social skills and leads to obesity and violence.
Setting the record straight is the mission of Children's Hospital Boston's Center on Media and Child Health (CMCH) and its resident "mediatrician," Michael Rich, MD, MPH. Rich's team studies the diverse ways that media exposure impacts children, from tots to teens, by conducting its own scientific research and building a database of nearly 10,000 papers on the subject from around the world. Here, Rich sheds light on some widely held media misconceptions.
Countless books and videos claim they can turn infants into veritable doctors in diapers. Does any of it hold water? According to Rich's research, no. "The so-called 'smart baby' products show no evidence of helping babies learn," he says. "Baby Einstein products aren't better than putting a child in front of a mobile or giving them a puzzle—and they may actually slow or delay some aspects of brain development."
Babies' brains triple in volume during their first two years, making billions of synaptic connections in response to environmental stimuli. Face-to-face contact with another person is shown to build these strong connections, as are interactions with the physical world (like stacking blocks) and problem-solving play. "The problem is that these baby programs don't provide any of those key brain-building stimuli," says Rich. "In fact, we've seen that 8- to 16-month-olds who watch baby videos can actually have language delays."
While they do contain pitfalls that call for parental guidelines, online communities can also provide teenagers with positive, enriching experiences. "They offer opportunities for teens to expand their human connections and awareness of the world," he says. "Many sites allow teens to work through social anxiety issues, learn to talk to people they're romantically interested in and make friends in a relatively safe environment."
Rich particularly likes the fact that social sites foster a pervasive sense of equality, which can boost self-esteem. "On the Web it doesn't matter if you're a millionaire or a child, everyone has a voice," he says. According to his research, social sites create an environment that helps teenagers navigate their path through adolescence, allowing them to explore questions like "Who am I? How do I fit into the world? What is the world like and how should I behave in it?"
Well-meaning parents are prone to introducing children to computers, TV and—when they're a bit older—cell phones, to give them a head start on getting tech savvy. But most of these efforts are, apparently, to no avail. "There's really no getting ahead, since kids develop at a certain biological rate," says Rich. "Parents can actually put kids at a disadvantage by exposing them to technology they won't be able to understand or use effectively, since it isolates them from much more developmentally positive tasks, like interacting with others."
Similarly, many optimistic parents assume that if they introduce their child to computer or TV programs designed for older kids, they'll learn more. "Virtually all parents are convinced that their 3-year-old is smart enough to watch or do something designed for a 5-year-old," says Rich. "But even if their child really is smarter than the average bear, it flies in the face of basic biology. It's like saying, 'My newborn is smart enough to walk.'"
Another reason to keep kids away from media for older kids is that they can be incredibly frightening. "Cognitive psychology tells us kids under 7 are incapable of distinguishing fantasy from reality," says Rich. "So to them, Wyle E. Coyote plummeting to the bottom of a canyon has the same gravitas as the World Trade towers crashing down."
CMCH studies suggest that it's not just the quantity but also the quality of TV children watch that affects their social relationships and learning. For example, 17-year-olds who watched small amounts of educational TV at ages 3 to 5 placed more value on achievement, read more books and had higher grades as teens. Those who watched entertainment TV at the same ages had lower grades. While these statistical correlations are consistent, they don't prove a causal relationship, Rich cautions. "Many factors contribute to a child's development and achievement," he says. "What this research shows is that the content of television they view may independently contribute to the effects of other factors."
The research on video games isn't all gloom and doom either. Quality matters here, too. "Video games that give children a series of problems to solve and offer ways to practice responses in a virtual environment are among the best educational tools available to us today," says Rich. "Just imagine what we could be helping children learn if nine out of the 10 best-selling video games didn't reward players for violence."
Today, the pressure to fill up children's lives with stimulation seems inescapable. But kids need time to take in what they've learned. "The problem is that the constant stream of stimulation doesn't give them time to reflect, synthesize or figure out what it is they're perceiving," says Rich.
While the jury is still out on whether attention disorders can be acquired or aggravated due to hyper-stimulation, Rich posits that it does play a role. "There's good evidence that so much stimulation negatively affects children's creativity and their ability to persevere," he says. Too much manufactured fantasy leaves no room for the more productive, home-made variety, he contends. "I worry about kids who are asked in school to create their own imaginary world—without having it be pre-processed for them. I like to reassure parents that there's value in just letting kids daydream."