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Growing up fast and furious – Media’s impact on our children: ‘Top 10’ for 2012

Fr George Liangas

By Fr George Liangas

Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist

Assistant priest, St Nectarios Church, Burwood, Sydney

St Nectarios Burwood03

2012 was another fruitful year in the research and discussion of the effects of electronic media. Here we provide a ‘Top 10’ of interesting and important articles, from a range of related topics. These articles vary from research articles to newspaper editorials, podcasts and commissioned reports. They were chosen from over 100 articles listed the fortnightly electronic bulletins of the Australian Council of Children and the Media (ACCM)[1].

*10. The Commodification of Self-Esteem: Branding and British Teenagers[2] is a study that explores the role of consumption in the lives of British adolescents, especially relating to their self-esteem. In focus groups, teenagers expressed that because of peer pressure, consuming the correct possessions at the right time is essential for social acceptance, gaining and maintaining friendships and thus self-esteem. Fashion brands thus contribute to adolescents’ feeling of self-worth; therefore self-esteem can be ‘consumed’. Failing to ‘keep up’ with consumption trends can lead to social exclusion, negative peer evaluation and reduced self-esteem. This phenomenon seems to be more pronounced amongst low-income families, who despite their financial difficulties were eager to buy the most expensive brands.

*9. Digital age is dumbing down our children[3] is an opinion article in The Australian newspaper. The author in the 1980s used to be a big advocate for introducing computers into schools. Since then, much has changed, and electronic media is now everywhere in people’s schools and homes. The author laments that we have gone too far; children’s use of electronic media is now heavy enough to be damaging their brains. Quoting another expert, he writes, “My fear is that these technologies are infantilising the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment”. Children cannot focus on classroom tasks as much and they are no longer able to process and reflect on what they read. International research shows that computers may be hindering the learning of subjects including maths and science, mostly by providing distractions such as social networking and computer games.

*8. The Impact of a Healthy Media Use Intervention on Sleep in Preschool Children[4]. In this well-designed (randomised controlled) trial families were encouraged to replace violent or age-inappropriate media content for preschool children with content that was age-appropriate and educational or pro-social. This intervention led to a marked improvement in the children’s sleep. This trial reinforces other research suggesting that violent or other inappropriate media content affects children’s sleep. The other lesson is that if children do have sleep problems, addressing their viewing habits is a simple, sensible and proven intervention.

*7. Report of the Media Violence Commission[5] is a report on media violence commissioned by the International Society for Research on Aggression. It collected all the known evidence about the effects of media violence. It concluded that “over the past 50 years, a large number of studies conducted around the world have shown that watching violent television, watching violent films, or playing violent video games increases the likelihood for aggressive behavior… this is true across studies using different methods, coming from different countries, and covering different time periods”. The report expands on these effects in much detail. The report advocates for greater parental monitoring, and at public policy level, advocates for improved media ratings and public education about the effects of media on children.

*6. Children, Teens, and Entertainment Media: The View from the Classroom[6]. Given their expertise, teachers are in a very good position to observe the effect of media on their students. This report is based on a survey of 685 K-12 teachers in the United States. Key findings include: many teachers believe their students’ use of entertainment media has hurt their performance, especially their attention span and their face-to-face communication. Writing skills have gotten worse over the years. Texting, social networking, video games and television are the biggest culprits in affecting academic skills. Students’ use of entertainment media also affects their social development, especially their sexualisation. Entertainment media do have some positive effects, e.g. finding information and multi-tasking effectively.

*5. Independent Parliamentary Inquiry into Online Child Protection[7] is the report of a British parliamentary inquiry. Since the inception of the World Wide Web, pornography has been “one of the most widely available forms of internet content”, so that “the whole history of human sexual perversion in only a few clicks away”. Children are readily accessing porn, together with other disturbing material. While parents hold some responsibility to protect their children, responsibility should also rest with Internet Service Providers (ISPs), e.g. by providing network filtering. The inquiry recommends that ISPs should do more to protect children, and government should consider “legal provisions to intervene should industry progress prove inadequate”. Government should also consider new ways to regulate online content.

*4. The issue: sexualizing childhood[8] is a radio discussion (now a podcast) on ABC radio involving several child advocates and researchers on the effects of the media on children. The program was triggered by the news story of Target stores selling ‘sexy’ clothes to children in August this year. In the podcast the experts discussed that marketers are now specifically targeting pre-pubertal children by aggressively marketing sexualised products (e.g. raunchy clothes) to them. By forcing such marketing onto these children who are otherwise not sexual, children become confused in their identity and how they are to relate to each other and to the opposite sex: “it’s about imposing adult concepts of sexuality onto children at an age when they are not developmentally or cognitively equipped to understand those messages… it’s an assault on the healthy, normally developing sexuality of children”. Children are hence becoming unnecessarily more unhappy and dissatisfied with their bodies and with themselves.

*3. Does food marketing need to make us fat? A review and solutions[9] is a journal article looking at how marketing is contributing to obesity, and what steps can be taken to counteract this trend. Developed countries have easy access to a variety of tasty, convenient, inexpensive foods that can be eaten in large quantities, something that food marketers promote in creative and effective ways. The article turns these observations around to show that with a bit of creativity and will, effects of pricing and advertising can be used to improve diet. Examples include: reducing the price of healthy foods, having healthier take-away food options, using innovative advertising for healthy foods, building partnerships between entertainment companies and fruit companies, improve labeling (e.g. traffic light symbols according to healthy status), food companies finding ways to reduce fat, sugar and salt content of their foods without altering taste, decreasing portions of unhealthy foods and increasing portions of healthy foods, and making healthy foods more prominent in retail stores. The article concludes that food manufacturers and retailers can continue to be profitable without making us fat, but this requires goodwill and collaboration between industry, science and government.

*2. Facing the Screen Dilemma: Young Children, Technology, and Early Education[10] is a report written by three child advocacy groups, addressing the issue of how to deal with the challenges of electronic media in pre-school settings,e.g. day care centres, preschools and kindergartens. The report brings together research outlining the effects of the media for children of this age; including effects on aggression, empathy, attention, sleep, obesity, play and learning. New technologies are marketed as “interactive”, but instead give children “a predetermined set of options” that inhibit true give-and-take. The report encourages those working with preschool children to use interactive technologies in a rational and diligent way. This report even suggests how a centre can become screen-free, using more educationally and developmentally appropriate alternatives.

*1. Systematic Review of Effective Strategies for Reducing Screen Time Among Young Children[11]. While there is much research about the negative effects of electronic media, there is much less research about what can be done about it. This article brings together all good previous research studies done about how to reduce screen time amongst children less than 12 years. This study identified and analysed 47 relevant studies. The strategies that were most effective were using electronic TV monitoring devices, clinic-based counselling to parents and children, education to parents and children (e.g. providing parenting advice, or providing resources to parents to help them provide alternatives to electronic media to their children), and reward systems (e.g. children could watch TV only after performing a certain amount of physical exercise). Surprisingly, there was no good research looking at whether removing media from children’s bedrooms is an effective intervention.


The research for 2012 reinforces one thing: that many of the effects of electronic media are driven by materialism. Possessing electronic gadgets and the products marketed through them are just two relevant examples. While people have always been materialistic, today it has reached epidemic proportions. It is a vicious circle: the more things we have, the more that we want, and the more we want, the more we have. The end result is that we are raising young people living superficial and empty lives. The problems of electronic media are just symptoms of this epidemic. This ‘materialism epidemic’ is also the cause of the environment problem, the obesity problem, and many other problems. Unfortunately most of this research only skims the surface of the problem.

The challenge for all of us is to simplify our lives and live within our means. We may use electronic media as far as it is useful, and control all further uses of it.

Once upon a time, children used to raise themselves. They would come home from school, have a bite, and then spend the evening playing and exploring with their friends. Parents knew the friends and the outdoors were safe. Things are different, and whether parents like it or not, need to be more active in their parenting. They need to be loving, involved and thoughtful. Children need to learn that not all that glitters is gold, and to be inspired to more edifying and constructive pursuits.

[2] Isaksen KJ, Roper S. The commodification of self-esteem: branding and British teenagers. Psychology & Marketing 2012; 29(3): 117-135.

[3] Donnelly K. Digital age is dumbing down our children. The Australian 29 Jul 2012. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/opinion/digital-age-is-dumbing-down-our-children/story-e6frgd0x-1226436959981. Accessed 6 Dec 2012.

[4] Garrison MM, Christakis DA. The impact of a healthy media use intervention on sleep in preschool children. Pediatrics 2012; 130(3): DOI: 10.1542/peds.2011-3153. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2012/08/01/peds.2011-3153.full.pdf+html. Accessed 6 Dec 2012.

[5] Media Violence Commission, International Society for Research on Aggression. Report of the Media Violence Commission. Aggressive Behavior 2012; 38: 335-341. http://www.israsociety.com/pdfs/Media%20Violence%20Commission%20final%20report.pdf. Accessed 6 Dec 2012.

[6] Common Sense Media. Children, teens, and entertainment media: The view from the classroom. USA: Common Sense Media 2012. http://www.commonsensemedia.org/sites/default/files/research/view-from-the-classroom-final-report.pdf. Accessed 6 Dec 2012.

[7] Independent parliamentary inquiry into online child protection: Findings and recommendations. London: House of Commons 2012. http://www.claireperry.org.uk/downloads/independent-parliamentary-inquiry-into-online-child-protection.pdf. Accessed 6 Dec 2012.

[8] Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The issue: Sexualising Childhood. Podcast 19 Aug 2012. http://www.abc.net.au/sundaynights/stories/s3571900.htm. Accessed 6 Dec 2012.

[9] Chandon P, Wansink B. Does food marketing need to make us fat? A review and solutions. Nutrition Reviews 2012; 70(10): 571-593. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1753-4887.2012.00518.x/pdf; Accessed 5 Dec 2012.

[10] Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, Alliance for Childhood, & Teachers

Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment. Facing the Screen Dilemma: Young children,

technology and early education. Boston, MA: Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood; New York:

Alliance for Childhood 2012. http://commercialfreechildhood.org/sites/default/files/facingthescreendilemma.pdf; Accessed 5 Dec 2012.

[11] Schmidt ME, Haines J, O’Brien A, et al. Systematic review of effective strategies for reducing screen time among young children. Obesity 2012; 20(7): 1338-1354.

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