Helping Young Children Develop a Healthy Media Diet

To an unprecedented extent, we live in a screen-saturated world.  Of particular interest and concern in recent years is the impact on young children.

A common response to this concern is to treat TV or other electronic media as if it is a mass substance like a drug or high-calorie food.  People, for example, ask, “how many hours of TV should a child watch?”  If TV (or other medium) is seen as toxic, the answer is none, or as little as possible.  If TV is seen as toxic only in large quantities (like high-calorie food), then some presumably optimal number is given.  Especially in medically oriented research, the underlying conception of media and impact tends to be dose-response.  The question then becomes, what is the optimum dose?

I consider this approach to children and media, as common as it is, to be naïve and misleading.  In fact, media are not only different from one another in how they are used and experienced, but they also contain many different kinds of content.  Different kinds of content are like different kinds of food:  No one would consider doughnuts and broccoli to have identical effects on health.

Consider three notions: background and foreground media, and media diet.  Media in the background are not usually the focus of a child’s sustained attention, whereas foreground media are specifically designed to focus young children’s attention. Media diet refers to the entire mix of children’s media exposure.

Older family members usually choose background media, and they are in use while the young child is present.  The medium might be a dynamic screen saver on a computer screen, a TV playing a football game, a radio talk show, or hip-hop played on the stereo.  It might be a parent updating a Facebook page on her iPad, or a teenage sibling playing a game on his cell phone or game console.  In none of these examples is a young child likely to pay sustained attention to the media content, but in all of them the child could be influenced.  The TV sports program may distract the child from constructive toy play, the parent updating Facebook may be unresponsive to the child’s social bids, and the teen game player is unavailable to read to his younger sibling.

The TV sports program may distract the child from constructive toy play, the parent updating Facebook may be unresponsive to the child’s social bids, and the teen game player is unavailable to read to his younger sibling.

Only in recent years have researchers begun to measure children’s exposure to background media.  Considering television alone, a recent study found that children under 3 years of age spent about 5 ½ hours a day in the presence of a TV set playing in the background.  No studies have yet included all background media, but we can guess that the exposure is large.  In future posts, I will write about the impact of background media, but it is sufficient for now to say that the impact on young children appears to be important. Background television, for example, appears to have some negative impact on parent–child interaction.

Background and foreground media are often intermingled in a confused way in discussions and research about media and children.  But young children’s foreground media usually consist of programs specifically designed for them and to which they pay attention.  Because sustained attention is directly related to understanding and learning, program content is of great importance.  What children understand (or misunderstand) and learn influences their current and future behavior, and ultimately, their development.  In the case of foreground media, to misquote Marshall McLuhan, the medium is not the message, the message is the message.  Because children pay sustained attention, foreground media have the capacity to teach the child, for better or worse.

Foreground media affect children by pathways different from background media.  Of course, like any experience, what children learn may not always be what we want them to learn.  On the one hand, young children might learn important vocabulary from Sesame Street, and on the other, they might learn how to act disrespectfully from The Three Stooges.  When it comes to a healthy media diet, content matters.

My goal in future posts will be to help readers think in a nuanced way about media and children and to tell them what we know from research.  Too much of some foods is hazardous to health.  Enough of the right foods allows healthy growth and development.  Very much like a food diet, a media diet provides promise and peril for young children.  A healthy media diet depends on context and content.

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