The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Q1: What sort of media might be “bad” for my children?

There’s a huge amount of debate surrounding the potential benefits and risks associated with children’s media use and it’s difficult to know what’s for the best. Turning to what the research says can help – but just because it’s described as research doesn’t mean that it’s neutral. It’s wise to be cautious, whether a report strongly emphasises the negative or the positive effects of media on children. Studies that don’t show any effect tend not to get published - and certainly don’t become the subject of media interest. What’s the story if a study suggests that time spent watching the television or playing computer games doesn’t seem to damage your child?

It should also be noted that much of the key research on this topic comes from the USA, where viewing patterns and the range of programmes on offer is different to the European media scene, with its strong emphasis on public service broadcasting.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has had a lot of publicity for discouraging children under the age of two from having any screen exposure and suggesting that older children’s screen time should be limited to under two hours a day. They also say that televisions and internet-connected devices should be kept out of a child’s bedroom, usage should be monitored and a ’family home use plan’ should be established that includes a ban on screen-based media at meals and bedtimes. [1] They claim that exposure can lead to a wide variety of health risks, but perhaps it’s not surprising that a group representing a medical profession focuses on the threats rather than the benefits - and overlooks some of the day-to-day realities of family life. However, their recommendations have been influential, even on this side of the Atlantic, because some parents look for firm guidance in this unknown territory.

MultimediaNobody really knows what counts as an excessive amount of screen time. Headlines can be misleading here, too. For instance, a 2013 survey of nearly 1500 parents of children between the ages of nought and eight that took place in the United States showed that the amount of time children spent using mobile devices had tripled over the two years since the previous survey. However, it still accounted for just 15 minutes per day. [2] Figures for the UK collected by Ofcom show that the amount of time spent online varied from just over an hour a day for children aged five to seven to just over three hours a day for children aged 12 to 15. But these are for weekend days and figures are considerably less on school days. [3] Context and content are important: some parents might be quite happy for their 12-year-old child to spend two hours at a time playing Minecraft but rather less comfortable about the same child playing ten minutes of Grand Theft Auto. That said, children who spend extended periods of time interacting with or watching media are unlikely to be totally immune from some effects. It cuts both ways: if it’s possible that violent video games are detrimental then it is possible that games designed to be educational or to support positive behaviour can affect children in ways that are beneficial.

It has yet to be proven beyond doubt that screen-based activities discourage children from exercising [4] but a survey of 2,300 parents of children aged nought to eight showed that parents believed that screen media have a negative impact on children’s physical activity. [5] However, an in-depth Scottish study of nearly 3000 children says that other factors are more likely to be associated with a child being overweight or obese than time spent in front of a screen. Factors such as having an overweight parent, frequently snacking on unhealthy foods as a toddler and skipping breakfast don’t get the same amount of press coverage, but all have strong links to child obesity. [6]

There seems to be more evidence for links between the use of technology and lack of sleep and poor sleep patterns. The brightness of the screen can mean that having a TV or computer in the bedroom interferes with sleep as it alters the ways that help your body to know it’s tired [7] and taking a mobile device to bed can mean settling down to sleep much later than usual. Research investigating 13-16 year olds in Belgium found that using mobile phones after lights out was widespread and increased levels of tiredness, although they pointed out that adolescents might use their mobiles because they couldn’t sleep, rather than the other way around. [8]

The main areas of concern for parents are threats to children’s health and wellbeing, concerns about video games (see Q2), social behaviour (Q3) and educational issues (Q5). However, even the extent of parents’ worries is debatable as it can vary depending on the age of the children and parents’ levels of confidence. A small-scale study of young children suggested that parents were not worried about negative effects of screen-based media as they believed that they had the right balance of activities for their family, [9] a conclusion in line with over 75% of parents of three- and four-year-olds in Ofcom’s 2012 survey [10] that said they were not concerned about their children’s use of TV or computer games. Even for children in the five to fifteen age range, nearly three-quarters said that they were ‘not very or not all concerned’ about how much time they spend online. [11] While some parents clearly do have concerns, media coverage can exaggerate this a bit and it’s possible that researchers or medical professionals may be more concerned than parents about the potential influence of screen media. [12]

Still, some parents do have concerns about the role of screen-based media in family life and if you’re worried, you’re not alone. It’s a natural response to change and the unknown. The widespread introduction of new forms of entertainment often gives rise to parents’ anxieties: in the 1950s, for instance, rock ‘n’ roll music was considered to be a bad influence on children because it was seen as too sexualized. It can seem more complicated now because rapid changes in technology can get tangled up with a belief that children find their way around digital devices better than their parents, turning upside down the conventional roles of the adult who knows more than a child. In practice, this is rarely the case with young children [13] but parents of teenagers sometimes lack confidence about overseeing their child’s media usage. One of the difficulties is deciding how much control over our children’s activities we want to have as parents and whether forbidding games or viewing creates a counter-productive forbidden fruit effect.

We also need to remember that one of the biggest influences on children’s wellbeing is our own behaviour. If we feel that our children are spending too much time online then cutting down on our own screen time while they’re around and creating opportunities for sharing active play might help. [14] We all know that it’s not easy to put this into action but, at the least, we could acknowledge that we are more likely to foster the media habits we would like to see in our children if we pay more attention to our own.

Illustration by The Brothers McLeod 

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[1] Strasburger, V. and Hogan, M. (2013) Policy Statement: Children, adolescents and the media. P ediatrics 132(5): 958-961; Strasburger, V. (2010). Policy Statement – Media Education. Pediatrics 126 (5): 1012-1017.
[2] Rideout V. (2013) Zero to Eight: Children’s Media Use in America 2013. San Francisco: Common Sense Media.
[3] Ofcom (2013) Children and parents: Media literacy tracker. Released August 2013.
[4] Howard-Jones, P. (2011) The impact of digital technologies on human wellbeing: Evidence from the sciences of mind and brain. Oxford: Nominet Trust. 
[5] Wartella, Rideout, Lauricella and Connell (2013) Parenting in the age of digital technology. Evanston IL: Center on Media and Human Development, Northwestern University.
[6] Parkes, A., Sweeting, H. & Wight, D. (2012) Growing Up In Scotland: Overweight, obesity and activity. Edinburgh: Scottish Government.
[7] Wood, B., Rea, M., Plitnick, B. and Figueiro MG (2013) Light level and duration of exposure determine the impact of self-luminous tablets on melatonin suppression. Applied Ergonomics, 44 (2) 237-240.
[8] Van den Bulck, J. (2007) Adolescent use of mobile phones for calling and for sending text messages after lights out: results from a prospective cohort study with a one-year follow-up. SLEEP 30 (9) 1220-1223.
[9] Plowman L., McPake J. & Stephen C. (2010) The technologisation of childhood? Young children and technologies at home. Children and Society 24 (1) 63-74.
[10] Ofcom (2012) Children and parents: Media use and attitudes report. Released 23 October 2012.
[11]  Ofcom (2013) Children and parents: Media literacy tracker. Released August 2013.
[12] Funk, J., Brouwer, J., Curtiss, K. & McBroom, E. (2009) Parents of preschoolers: expert media recommendations and ratings knowledge, media-effects beliefs, and monitoring practices. Pediatrics, 123 (3) 981-988.
[13] Plowman, L. & McPake J. (2013) Seven myths about young children and technology. Childhood Education 89 (1) 27-33.
[14] De Decker, E. et al. (2012) Influencing factors of screen time in preschool children: an exploration of parents’ perceptions through focus groups in six European countries. Obesity Reviews 13 (1): 75-84.

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