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GROWING UP FAST AND FURIOUS MEDIA’S IMPACT ON OUR CHILDREN

Mass Media Madness

THE HAEMORRHAGING OF PLAY: PART 1

 

By Fr George Liangas

Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist

School Chaplain, All Saints Grammar, Sydney

 

“Children’s games are hardly games. Children are never more serious than when they play”. – Michel de Montaigne, French writer, 1533-1592, Essays

 

Just like every other child, my 21-month-old daughter loves to play. She especially loves playing with Tia, a cloth doll with reddish hair and a purple dress. She carries her around the house, talks to her in their own language, hugs her and taps her gently on her back. My daughter also loves to flick through books, scribble on paper, line up blocks, remove books from shelves and open-and-close cupboards and drawers. Even more, she loves to involve her parents in her play, passing to us her doll, or pretending to talk to us on her toy telephone.

Whatever the play, she is deeply engrossed in it. Children’s play is not trivial or just for fun. Play when done in an active and creative way is an important feature of childhood and as a way of learning. Play helps children determine their place in the world and how they can influence the world around them. This happens before they even start talking. Play is important to children for reasons that include the following[1]:

 

Socialisation

Children begin to learn social skills by watching the adults around them and then rehearsing them in play. Playing in pairs or groups gives them opportunities to practice give-and-take skills that are essential in child and adult relationships.

Accumulation of information and skills

Play is a process; children develop through play. Children accumulate facts, improve their use of language and modify their understanding of the world through play. As Jerome Bruner (an eminent psychologist) has said, playful exploration has led to the development of tools. Children today learn to use modern tools such as pencils, paintbrushes, scissors and books through play[2].

When a child is setting up a tea party for her dolls or another climbs a playground tower to look out for pirates, they are applying what they remember from their lives (parents setting up the dinner table, or being read a pirate story), and then use their imagination to incorporate their newly-formed skills (setting up a table, climbing, looking out for friends) into their own lives. As

Bruner said, play is memory in action.

 

Cognitive, emotional and character development

In play, children often pretend they are doing adult things. In this way, they are rehearsing for their future roles and values. As Russian eminent psychologist Vygotsky has written, “In play a child is always above his average age, above his daily behaviour. In play it is as though he were a head taller than himself”[3].

By doing this, a child learns to see the world from another person’s perspective, developing attributes such as sharing, cooperation and being generous. Children also learn to think ahead and anticipate the consequences of their own actions. As an eventual outcome, play helps in the development of creativity, motivation, perseverance and self-confidence. They develop from pretend play to real living.

Creativity

Play is not just about imitating or ‘learning a script’. In their imaginative play, children often go beyond imitation, asking and answering questions that preoccupy them. Children have been described as “the most avid seekers of meaning and significance”. They are “being creative in bringing together what they know and what they have experienced in order to create new understanding”.

Growth of self

One thing very important to childhood is the formation of self, meaning that the child becomes an integrated being, with its own identity and character, functioning within a community. Play brings together all the developing functions mentioned above in a safe and contained environment, leading to the healthy creation of self. As a leading psychotherapist has said, “the play of the child is not mere diversion; it is vital to the evolution of mature psychic life”4. ‘Psychic’ in this context means the internal world of the person. He continues: “The field of play is where, to a large extent, a sense of self is generated”[4]4.

The growth of self does not only occur in children, but throughout life. The equivalent of play in adolescents and adults is the internal thinking and feeling space; the internal dialogue that we have, the playing of thoughts and ideas in our mind. Play in children, thus, provides the building blocks of the healthy adult internal world.

Play and electronic media

The use of electronic media, even when it is the playing of computer or video games, is a poor substitute of more traditional forms of play. The trouble with electronic media is that they are heavily scripted; the child’s thinking becomes a lot more passive and restricted. The ultimate fear is that excessive media exposure will compromise – or haemorrhage – children’s opportunities

for real play and for the healthy development of self.

Part 2 of this segment will elaborate on the impact of electronic media on children and their play. In the meantime, offer your children lots of opportunities of creative play, and do not be afraid to join in with them. I know that this is what my daughter wants me to do!

(Source: Greek-Australian Vema – January 2012 Pg. 7/25)

teen-on-computer

THE HAEMORRHAGING OF PLAY: PART 2

 

By Fr George Liangas

Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist

School Chaplain, All Saints Grammar, Sydney

 

“Children need to interact with living, breathing human playmates, and not be captive by the lights, sounds and images on a screen. They need to run, chase, ride, skip, and jump, and not sit still for prolonged blocks of time”. – Bobbi Conner, author of ‘Unplugged Play’[5]

 

The temptation to allow children to be entertained by television and other media is great. Our lives are very busy and opportunities for unsupervised play outside the home are few, especially in the cities. At the same time, children really enjoy these technologies. They are contented and parents are contented. Everything is good. Right?

One negative consequence of too much electronic media in children is the diminishing of play time. In the last article we showed that children’s play is very important in their social, emotional, cognitive and self-development. The amount of time that children play outdoors has diminished remarkably over the last generation. In one study, 31% of children aged 3-12 today played outdoors every day, compared to 70% of children the generation before[6].

When today’s children do play outdoors, they do so for much shorter periods of time. The amount of imagination, spontaneity and improvisation was also decreased. Only 33% of children today play street games such as jump rope and hopscotch, compared to 85% of the previous generation.

The reasons given for the decrease in outdoor time are:

(1) Children’s dependence on television and digital media (85% of respondents),

(2) Concerns about crime and safety (82%),

(3) Parents do not have adequate time to spend outdoors with their children (77%), and

(4) Lack of adult supervision and fear of physical harm to the children (61%).

This study noted that the decrease in outdoor activity prevented children from reaching optimal physical growth, athletic ability, agility, dexterity and confidence, which come with running, climbing and jumping in outdoor spaces. The decrease in outdoor play and increase in electronic media use may be contributing to the obesity epidemic.

Numerous studies have shown that children who play less outside and watch more television are more likely to be overweight or obese[7]. Increases in other illnesses in children, such as Type 2 diabetes, asthma, Vitamin D deficiency and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder are attributable to today’s more sedentary lifestyle[8]. By playing less, children are becoming passive and isolate themselves from peer groups. Important tasks and skills that children develop though play, such as perceptual abilities, decision making, taking on of responsibility, working in groups, taking appropriate risks and managing stress are all diminished. Imagination and creativity, two very important domains of development, can also be affected. As Conner states, “Because electronic games are pre-programmed with finite possible responses, they limit the imagination.

A child who draws, paints, builds, and invents experiences a creativity that has no boundaries. By learning that he has the ability to shape his world – either alone or in the company of others – he gains the self-confidence he needs to grow into a problem-solving, creative adult.”

If play is so good and electronic media less so, why are children so attracted to the electronic screen? We can all relate to the experience of being drawn to bad habits much more than to good habits. The razzle-dazzle of electronic media captivates children but then they can easily control them; children become passive consumers rather than active participants, thinkers or creators. Other reasons for the success of electronic media are successful advertising, peer pressure and convenience. These reasons are often not in the best interests of the child.

We owe it to our children to offer them the best for their growth and development. Offering them enough play opportunities is essential; as essential as providing food, drink, basic hygiene, nurturance and formal education. In the ‘old days’ letting the children out the front door was good enough to ensure children had enough play opportunities.

Today’s fast pace of life means that often we ‘outsource’ this crucial task to the television or the playstation, which is grossly inadequate. Therefore we have to work harder to ensure that children get good enough play time. Achieving this will be one of the best investments that we can all make for our children.

NOTE: “Unplugged Play” is an excellent book offering hundreds of play suggestions that grown-ups can offer for their children. The author, Bobbi Conner, suggests 8 ways to promote a “No-Battery Zone”:

*1. Provide toys that allow variety – balls, a sandbox, building blocks, etc.

*2. Vary the pace and types of play. Look for small windows of opportunity that can flow seamlessly into the day. Keep it casual and short.

*3. Make your home a place that other children enjoy visiting. It’s easier to control what kinds of games kids play on your own turf.

*4. Don’t micromanage your child’s play.

*5. If your child looks stumped, improvise: “What sort of fort could you make with these boxes and blankets?”

*6. Don’t be afraid to let grandparents, friends, and gift-givers know you prefer low-tech or notech toys for your child.

*7. As kids get older, set up a Family Electronic Play Plan. You – not your child – should decide how much time is allowed for electronic play each week.

*8. Create a regular time that is Family Game Night – and put it on your calendar so you don’t forget.

(Source: Greek-Australian Vema – February 2012 Pg. 7/25)

depression

DEPRESSION

By Fr George Liangas

Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist

School Chaplain, All Saints Grammar, Sydney

“Whoever has an attachment to anything visible is not yet delivered from grief”. – The Ladder of Divine Ascent, II, 7.

Jack (not his real name) is a 15-year-old boy, brought to the doctor by his mother, complaining of low mood, irritability, problems with attending school, troublesome body aches and pains, and occasional episodes of seeing and hearing things that were not there. On taking the history, the doctor was not able to find the cause of these symptoms, until he asked about his media use.

Jack was staying up all night playing computer games. His average total media use in a 24-hour period was 17 hours. He had only 2-3 hours of sleep, was not eating well, and was hardly getting out of his room. The doctor suggested that his symptoms were due to his excessive media use. In the school holidays, Jack stayed at a farm with very little electronic media, and his symptoms disappeared completely. Albeit an extreme example, situations like Jack’s are getting more and more common. Unlike Jack, however, such problems are hard to solve, as children and young people find it hard to break the cycle of excessive media use, and parents struggle to enforce the appropriate limits.

When severe, excessive media use is often accompanied by other mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. Numerous studies have shown that children and adolescents exposed to too much television, internet, or computer games are more likely to be depressed or have related symptoms. Below is a small sample of these studies:

*1) In a survey of 30,000 US high-school students, teenagers who reported more than 5 hours of internet use and video games were twice as likely to be depressed or have suicidal thoughts as other teenagers[9].

*2) In a sample of children aged 6-17, the more excessive the television and computer use, the more likely they were to have social, emotional and self-esteem problems[10].

*3) In another study of teenagers, high internet users (more than 2 hours per day) reported worse relationships with their mothers and friends than low internet users (less than 1 hour per day)[11].

*4) In a sample of university students, those with problematic internet use (“internet addiction”) were nine times more likely to get moderate depression and four times more likely to get severe depression than their peers. These students’ grades, schoolwork, job performance, sleep and ability to do house chores had all deteriorated[12].

In recent times, several ‘new’ depressive syndromes related to excessive media use have been described, including:

‘Facebook Depression’

Facebook depression is a new phenomenon defined as “depression that develops when preteens and teens spend a great deal of time on social media sites, such as Facebook, and then begin to exhibit classic symptoms of depression”[13]. Factors contributing to this phenomenon include the desire to feel connected and accepted by peers and the intensity of the on-line world.

Some of these adolescents then become isolated in their off-line world, and many then turn to unsafe pursuits such as substance abuse, unhealthy sexual practices, aggressive and self-destructive behaviours.

‘Hikikomori’

In the last 12 years, Japan has noted a disturbing trend among its youth, which has been labelled Hikikomori, or severe social withdrawal. Features of this phenomenon include an individualistic mindset, having difficulties following the normal rules of society, struggling to recognise their weaknesses and limits, and avoiding effort and strenuous work[14].

They enjoy the internet and video games and nothing else. This phenomenon is not just limited to Japan, but rapidly spreading around the world. The authors describing Hikikomori note that it may be an indicator “of a pandemic of psychological problems that the global internet-connected society will have to face in the near future”.

What comes first: the chicken or the egg?

What these studies do not often clarify is: what comes first? Does problematic media use cause depression, or does depression make it more likely to be addicted to different media?

It is easy to see how excessive media use can cause depression. Excessive media use affects sleep, eating habits, activity levels and sociability, and all those can affect mood. Several studies that have followed teenagers over time have shown that problematic media use often comes before depression[15][16][17]. This means that excessive media use can in itself cause depression.

On the other hand, a depressed adolescent is likely to become more withdrawn and turn to media to keep themselves occupied. Problematic media use could thus be an indicator of other underlying problems. Regardless of what comes first, media addiction and depression is a toxic mix that can destroy the wellbeing, functioning and potential of the young person. If a young person has both, urgent help is needed.

The perspective of Orthodox Christian spirituality

Of course, electronic media did not exist at the time of our Church Fathers. Neither did the modern understanding of Major Depression. Despite this, the Church Fathers provide insights to suggest that both problems may have a common cause.

Many Church Fathers, including Evagrius, St John Cassian and St Maximus the Confessor, state that a major cause of sadness is the frustration of sensual desires; in other words, not being able to attain something that appeals to the senses, something that is worldly or material[18].

Also, addictions, or passions, are substitutes of God; they can be anything that captures the heart[19]. These substitutes are often material or sensual things: alcohol, drugs, money, gambling, popularity, sex, electronic media. Electronic media are able to capture young peoples’ senses so strongly, that they can easily go on to also capture the heart.

It is perhaps too simplistic to say that materialism causes both depression and addictions to media. Both conditions are serious conditions that require medical and psychological attention. However, the Church Fathers remind us that when we remove God from young peoples’ lives and simply offer the material and sensual world, we are going to end up with a lot of young people living depressed, troubled and empty lives. The problems that we see with excessive media use are just a natural consequence of this.

(Source: Greek-Australian Vema – March 2012 Pg. 7/25)

Example of MMOGS

MASSIVELY MULTILAYER ONLINE GAMES (MMOGS)

By Fr George Liangas

Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist

School Chaplain, All Saints Grammar, Sydney

“I write to you, young people, because you are strong and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one.” – 1 John 2:14, NRSV

 

Massively Multilayer Online Games (MMOGs) are games that can support a large number of people playing at the same time. An internet connection is required; hence these games have traditionally been played on computers. However, given that newer games consoles such as Xbox 360 and Wii have access to the internet, MMOGs can now be also played on these. They are increasingly been played on mobile phones as well.

MMOGs allow players to interact, cooperate and compete with each other in a large scale and with people all over the world[20]. Some games are free-to-play (other than the cost of the required software), some require a monthly subscription, and some are ‘freemium’, where much of the content is available for free, but players pay for extra content or added perks[21]. About half of the gamers pay real money to play MMOGs. In the US, gamers pay about $3.8 billion per year.

There are various types of MMOGs. The most common type is the Role-Playing games, commonly known as MMORPGs. The most popular such game is World of Warcraft, with over 10 million subscribers worldwide[22].

As with other MMORPGs, a player controls a character avatar, which is the user’s online alter ego or character. Players choose a realm, profession and other skills for their character. Their aim is to complete various quests in a fantasy world of Orcs, Trolls, ghosts, dragons, zombies and werewolves. Other MMOG types include First-Person Shooter games (MMOFPS), Real-Time Strategy games (MMORTS), simulations (e.g. World War II Online), sports, racing, casual games and social games (e.g. Second Life).

Addiction

According the research studies, playing MMOGs becomes a problem when it is done excessively. This may not be a small proportion. In one sample of online gamers, 67% were playing for more than 20 hours per week[23]. In such cases, online gaming can lead to Problematic

Internet Use, the formal name given to ‘internet addiction’. These games have several features making them addictive.

Firstly, the story line evolves over time and the time frame in which something important occurs

is unpredictable. The gamer is enticed to play more, thereby increasing the chances of ‘striking lucky’. Secondly, the acclaim and positive attention that one gets from others in the game interactions is a very strong driver of addictive behaviours[24].

Studies show that many online gamers do show addictive behaviours. For example, in one study, 40% or more of study participants had the following addictive behaviours: ever-increasing time spent on the game, social life suffering as a result of gaming, gaming contributing to arguments at home, and sleep being affected. Males were much more likely to play these games and show addictive behaviours. People more likely to be excessively involved with MMOGs are those with difficulties in their real-life interactions; they may have social anxiety, loneliness, or other social difficulties[25]. They may feel more accepted in the on-line world, or gaming may be an escape from their real-life troubles.

Escapism

Online gamers have to do a lot of hard, repetitive work to progress to higher levels, the sort of work that is often avoided in a 9-to-5 job. One research paper asked, “What is it about online games or the player that makes such work so compelling?”[26] They concluded that in the virtual world hard work gets rewarded in a more certain way than it gets rewarded in real life.

In another article comparing real marriages to virtual marriages, some player responses justifying virtual marriages included, “It’s just for fun, it’s different from the reality, having a lot of fantasy – besides, it saves money. It’s horrible to get married in reality”, and “in real life we are afraid to get married, but in the game, we can do something we are afraid to do and take no responsibility for it”[27]. (These games, incidentally, are not totally innocuous, as in some cases have “destroyed real-life marriages”).

Consumerism

Some authors have written that MMOGs are a reflection of modern consumeristic culture. Using the developing China as an example, one author notes that both consumerism and MMOGs allow “new ways for people to build their identities from the ground up”[28] in a way that the self and the expression of self are greatly elevated. This is contributing to a moral crisis.

A scriptural perspective

One of the strongest reasons for the popularity of online gaming seems to be the artificial elevating of self. This is at odds with Jesus’ words to “deny ourselves” (Luke 9:23). The purpose of the Christian life is to get to know ourselves; especially in relation to our Creator; to do away with the old, sinful self, and be alive to God (Romans 6:11). God has given us enough time in this life as we need, hence we need to “redeem the time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:16).

In this context, the youth are the ones fighting a most intense spiritual battle (1 John 13-14, 1Timothy 4:12). Any sense of identity is formed through fighting this battle, rather than any virtual, self-elevating battle. For a young person, a life away from Christ can be mundane, and the virtual world only intensifies, not alleviates, this mundane-ness.

(Source: Greek-Australian Vema – April 2012 Pg. 7/25)

Australian Classification system symbols

CLASSIFICATION SYSTEMS

By Fr George Liangas

Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist

School Chaplain, All Saints Grammar, Sydney

 

“That’s why they have come up with television to begin with; to make people numb and dumb, so that they will take what they hear and see on television for a fact and act accordingly.” – Elder Paisios of Mount Athos[29]

Most of us are familiar with classification ratings systems: G, PG, M, MA15+, and so on. Many parents rely on them to choose what shows their children should watch and what computer games they should play. However, what determines a particular rating, and what do the ratings actually mean, especially when it comes to protecting our children from the dangers of the media?

Classification in Australia

The national classification scheme is based on the Commonwealth Classification Code. The way that a classification is determined depends on the types of media[30]. For television shows, classification is allocated by the TV stations, using the federal guidelines. Films, videos, DVDs and computer games are classified by the Classification Board[31]. The Board members are employed for the purpose and are broadly representative of the Australian community. The ‘milder’ classifications (G, PG and M) are just recommendations (i.e. they are not legally enforceable), while the more ‘severe’ classifications (MA15+, R18+) are restricted (e.g. proof of age may be required to see a film or buy a game).

Internet content is not classified, but the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has a complaints process, and has the authority to issue takedown notices about offensive and illegal material.[32] Classifications are determined according to the impact on the audience of the six classifiable elements: adult themes, violence, sex, language, drug use and nudity.

The following guide is used:

G (general audience): very mild impact

PG (parental guidance): mild impact

M (not recommended for persons under 15 years): moderate impact.

MA15+ (legally restricted for persons over 15 years): strong impact.

R18+ (legally restricted for persons over 18 years): high impact.

RC (refused classification): very high impact.

Therefore, a G-rated show can have violence if it has “low threat or menace, and justified by context”; sexual activity “should be very mild and very discreetly implied, and be justified by context”[33], and so forth.

Why have classification systems?

Classification systems are necessary if (1) there is evidence of harmful effects of media, and (2) that using the ratings reduces the risk of harm. There is ample evidence to show that media violence contributes to increased aggression[34] and that sexual content contributes to early or risky sexual behaviour.[35] There has been less research into the effect of classification systems, but the available evidence shows that they are helpful. In one study, violent video games among teenagers led to more physical fights and poorer school performance, and students who reported that their parents use the rating to help choose games got into fewer fights and got better grades.[36]

Problems with classification systems

Most of the research into classification is from the United States, where the classification systems are somewhat different. However, much of this research can be applied to the Australian context. One of the problems with classification is about consistency. Film producer Hawk Koch once said, “I don’t understand the system, and I’m a filmmaker. I want to follow the rules, but I can’t figure out what they are, and no one is able to explain them”.[37] Raters themselves have stated that they have no clear standards for how the ratings should be determined.[38]

Often the content descriptors are not applied consistently. In one study, 44% of E-rated video games (equivalent to Australia’s G rating) with violence did not include the violence content descriptor.[39] Half of T-rated (“Teen”) games included violent, sexual, and drug use content that was not listed in their ratings.[40] And 81% of M-rated games included sexual, profanity, or drug/alcohol/tobacco content that was not listed in the ratings.[41] Likewise for television, 79% of shows containing violence did not include the V (violence) descriptor, 91% of shows with offensive language did not include the L (language) descriptor, and 92% of shows with sexual content did not include the S (sexual scenes) descriptor.[42]

Another problem with classifications is the “ratings creep” phenomenon; the observation that over time, adult content filters down into less restrictive ratings. One study examining G-rated animated films from 1937 to 1999 showed a significant increase in violence over time.[43] Another study showed that a PG movie in 2003 had as much violence, nudity and offensive language as a 1992 R-rated movie.[44] People argue that these ratings reflect changes in cultural norms, but the counterargument is that if the goal of ratings is to protect children from harm, aren’t cultural norms rather irrelevant?

Furthermore, how do we know that what we are measuring as indicators of harm are actually accurate? How do we calculate the difference between “very mild impact”, “mild impact” and other grades of impact? Surprisingly, very little of it is based on scientifically-determined measurements. When trained parents rated TV programs or movies, only 40% of TV shows and 50% of movies that were rated G were considered suitable for children aged 3-7. Generally speaking, when the entertainment industry rates a product as inappropriate, parent raters agree that it is inappropriate. However, parent raters will often rate a product as inappropriate even when the entertainment industry rates it as appropriate.

Comment

The above shows that while classification systems do have a place, exposure by children to media should continue to be closely supervised and scrutinised by parents. There is a danger that ratings systems give parents a false sense of security that what children are watching is safe when they may not be.

One thing that classification ratings are not able to do, especially for struggling Orthodox Christians, is to filter out unhelpful values. Christians, above all else, are asked to love God above all else and their neighbour as themselves (Luke 12:27), and to be “not of the world” (John 15:19). There are no ratings to screen against ‘mainstream’ values such as materialism.

Instilling values is one of the main tasks of parenting. This happens when parents spend time with their children; with children absorbing the example and the words of the parents. If children spend more time with electronic media than with their parents, is it no wonder that they will absorb the values portrayed in the media than those modelled by parents?

(Source: Greek-Australian Vema – May 2012 Pg. 7/25)

The Scream

ANXIETY AND FEAR

By Fr George Liangas

Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist

School Chaplain, All Saints Grammar, Sydney

“If there’s anything we need to protect our kids from, it’s the evening news.” – Behavioural Psychologist Dr Stephen Garber[45]

 

Fear or anxiety can be very useful, if they help us to avoid dangerous or unsafe situations. However, excessive anxiety and fear can be quite disabling, especially for children, since they have not developed the ways needed to cope with such distress. Electronic media can increase fear and anxiety in children in a number of ways. Research studies have mostly focused on the effect of television. Different ages tend to be frightened by different things. Preschool and infants-age children are frightened by scenes that look scary, including monsters and witches. Primary school children are frightened by more realistic shows, and this is the age most affected by violence on TV. Adolescents are more affected by ‘intangible threats’ in the media, such as global conflict, nuclear war and political attacks.[46]

Film Violence and Horror

Many people can remember being frightened as a child by a movie on television. In one study, 90% of university students remember having a lasting fright reaction, often with sleep and eating disturbances and ongoing dread.[47] In another study, 29% of university students said they continued to have a specific fear (such as fear of sharks or spiders), years after they saw something on television.[48] Twenty percent reported that they suffered from a variety of sleeping disorders, such as a fear of sleeping alone, nightmares, insomnia, or the need to leave a light on at night. As another example, many adults who saw Jaws as children still feel anxious swimming in lakes and pools, even though they are consciously aware that sharks are not found in these locations.[49]

Children themselves report that scary content on films affects them significantly. In one study, 31% of children reported feeling upset by a film they saw in the previous year.[50] Very often, they could also trace a long-term fear to something they saw in an adult film. Adolescents reported having frequent nightmares and other sleep disturbances relating to television viewing and computer game use.[51] Over the years, film has become more realistic and gruesome; and children and adolescents are increasingly regarded as targets for this kind of entertainment.[52]

Exposure to the News

Children are often exposed to the news, usually together with their parents; often over dinner or just before bedtime. One third of children (5-12 years old) watch the news on all or most days of the week.[53] They tend to watch more news around times of national and international crises, such as natural disasters.

Numerous studies have shown that news programs are a major source of fear. In one study, over 75% of children aged 5-12 were scared by news content. The older children were more likely to be scared as they understood the news content better. Showing strong graphic images and child victims made this fear worse. These fear responses can be long-lasting. For example, in one study, 5% of children aged 7-15 years had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, five years after the event, just from seeing the terrorist attack footage on TV.[54] The risk increased with increased viewing of these news items.

Reality-Based Programming

A related genre that can produce fear is reality programs such as Unsolved Mysteries and Missing Persons. Unlike news programs, these shows add stylistic effects such as music, dramatic re-enactments and police/expert interviews to heighten suspense. This blurs the boundary between information and entertainment, but children are less able to work that out. Thus, they very easily fear that such horror can happen to them, even though they are not in the same place or circumstance. In one survey, 64% of young people reported being scared or frightened by these shows.[55] Even in adults, exposure to such shows lead to increased fear of crime.[56]

Cultivation Phenomenon

Over time, too much viewing of real-life media violence can cultivate worry, mistrust and insecurity about the real world; the so-called “mean world syndrome”, otherwise known as the cultivation phenomenon. Given that television features so much violence, “heavy viewers…come to see the world as more violent”. Frequent viewers more often fear that they will themselves become a victim of violence than do light viewers.[57] For example, children who watched child kidnapping stories in the news were more likely to be frightened of being kidnapped themselves.[58]

Comment

One of the characteristics and joys of childhood is that children are shielded from the evils and dangers of the adult world. Thus they have the opportunity to grow up happily and safely, feeling good about themselves, about others and the world around them. By exposing them to so much horror and distress, are we not robbing them of the opportunity to grow up in a carefree environment?

As believing Christians we are aware of the dangers of the world around us, but also aware that God is with us to protect us. As the psalmist says, “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.”[59] This is a message that all children need to hear at the dinner table, rather than the messages of horror that they get by watching the news.

In today’s fast-paced society, it is rare for the family to come together as one unit. Traditionally the family has come together at the dining table in the evening. These days, however, at the dinner table family members are most often scattered or absent. Often they are occupied with their own electronic gadget. A simple but extremely edifying action is to reclaim the sanctuary of the dining table. Parents can arrange that all family members come together to discuss their day and to spend that precious time with each other; in the absence of electronic media interference.

(Source: Greek-Australian Vema – June 2012 Pg. 7/25)

Brand name logos01

WHAT ‘BRAND’ IS YOUR CHILD? PART 1

By Fr George Liangas

Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist

School Chaplain, All Saints Grammar, Sydney

“Childhood is endangered, pitted against the ubiquitous presence of media images and sound bites all of which persuade children to conform to a modality that is not necessarily in their best interests. At the heart of the struggle between childhood and consumerism, child identity formation is at stake”.

Sociologist Jennifer Hill[60]

You are walking past a bus stop and you see a bus stop advertisement of a major supermarket chain advertising their “massive toy sale”. Taking up the full height of the advertisement is a photo of a Barbie doll, in her unrealistic body proportions, dressed in a bikini. Initially you do not make anything of it, but on reflection, you muse, “Must they sexualise even a toy sale?”

Childhood is not just about being of a certain age. It is not even just about development in its physical, cognitive, social and other domains. Childhood is also about innocence. We deliberately shield children from “adult” types of material, partly because they may not mature enough to handle it themselves. If they were to be exposed to it prematurely, it may be damaging for them. Unfortunately, via electronic media marketers are very good at dumping all the ills of the ‘grown-up’ world into the minds and hearts of our children. As sociologist Jennifer Hill writes, “Indeed there is no aspect of adult life, whether it be perversity, promiscuity, dishonour or confusion, that seems outside the realm of today’s children”. Often this is driven by marketers attempting to persuade children to consume their products.

Consumer Culture and Children

Children, especially in the 4-12 year age bracket are seen as a very lucrative market, and the media continuously bombards them with messages to buy and consume. “Childhood has essentially been co-opted by marketing conglomerates and now represents an enormously lucrative sector of consumer society to the tune of $130bn dollars annually”. Media forces are now taking over from parents in capturing children’s attention and guiding them in their lives. Television is “the undisputed leader in the production of children’s culture”.[61] What is shown on television and other media “is for the most part not governed by theories on child development or mediated by a child’s parental figure. Rather, it is driven by a profit-seeking conglomeration with few regulations”.

Constructing the ‘Tween’

The social phenomenon of the ‘tween’ is one example of how marketing has shaped culture. Tweens are children in the approximate age bracket of 8 to 13. This age bracket has seen tremendous ‘age compression’ (children getting ‘older’ at younger ages); all for marketing purposes. Marketers “are hiring child psychologists and other experts to maximise their understanding of the segments and nuances of the youth market”. The adage ‘sex sells’ is well-known for advertising to adults, but it appears to work for children too. Jennifer Hill writes:

The sex and violence inundating children on various screens exists not because parents, teachers or caregivers think such content is good for children, but because sex and violence have proven to be profitable attention grabbers. The monetary potential that children represent can be worth a lifetime of brand loyalty and marketers will use ruthless tactics to ensure this comes to fruition.

Sex and violence is now part of the ‘cool’ image that primary-school children now aspire to. Children are targeted with messages about how to be attractive, about what is ‘important’ in being a man or a woman, and how males and females ought to relate to each other.

 

Consumerism and Identity

Rebellion amongst youth has given way to conformity to the “consumer culture ideology”, where children are trapped in “an endless quest of acquisition tied to identity”. In other words, children feel the need to belong, and in today’s world, to belong means to consume certain (advertised) products. Therefore, a child’s sense of identity is very closely tied to consumption. Social psychologist Dittmar writes: “while people believe they are expressing their selves and attaining happiness, they are, in fact, developing, monitoring, and moulding their identities with respect to unrealistic ideals promoted by consumer culture through advertising”.[62] This phenomenon has engrossed children so much that it is hard for them, or even for parents, to see what is happening.

Branding

Branding refers to the intensity of marketing directed at children, so that certain brands become part of their persona and identity. Babies can identify brands at 6 months of age, their first words are sometimes a brand name, and by the time they start school they have developed their brand preferences. As another writer has written, “the colonisation of children’s lives by the entertainment product cycle has woven Disney, Hasbro, Mattel and McDonald’s into the fabric of everyday life for urban children across the globe”.[63] Branding is not just about having preferences for certain brands. It is about having their identity merge with that of the particular brand. The child “not only wears branded clothing, but strives to adopt the mask of the brand’s aura in its entirety…the brand and consumer identity merge with the result that children themselves are shaped into commodities imprinted with the brand”.

Children learn to influence their parents’ spending, they channel their own money into these brands, and continue to be tied with these brands well into their adult lives. The relationship between brands and children is very tight. For example, corporations are hiring teens to be ‘trend-spotters’, “insiders who advise on the current teen market”. By this, “corporations seek to ensure that identity is found in the brand and guaranteeing that those brand-associated products will be hard sought after”. Branding goes even beyond tangible products, and into the ‘branding of the flesh’; e.g. by body piercings, tattoos and cosmetic surgery. For the sake of company profits, children’s innocence is being destroyed, and with it, childhood itself. What is the effect of this on children’s wellbeing? What do research studies say about the effects of consumerism? And how is it to be managed? An attempt to answer these will be made in the next article.

(Source: Greek-Australian Vema – July 2012 Pg. 7/25)

Brand name logos02

WHAT ‘BRAND’ IS YOUR CHILD? PART 2

 

By Fr George Liangas

Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist

School Chaplain, All Saints Grammar, Sydney

 

“In the old days, even children were tough and endured a lot. Now we need vitamins B, C and D and a Mercedes in order to make it”. – Elder Paisios of Mount Athos

 

Juliet Schor is a professor of sociology and an expert on consumerism. In her book ‘Born to Buy’ she discusses how marketers are influencing children through electronic media. She argues that marketers are placing themselves between the parent and the child, creating “utopian spaces free of parents and employ insidious dual-messaging strategies”.[64] They ‘team up’ with the child against the parent in order to meet the children’s excessive wishes.

Effects of consumerism on children’s wellbeing

In order to study the effect of consumerism on children, Schor recruited 300 children aged 10 to 13, who completed 157 questions, covering topic areas including media use, consumer values and involvement in consumer culture, relationships with parents, and measures of physical and mental well-being. The study found the following:

*1) Children who spend more time watching television and using other media become more involved in consumer culture (i.e. they become more consumeristic).

*2) Higher levels of consumerism made children more depressed, more anxious, with worse self-esteem, had more stomach aches and headaches, and more boredom.

*3) Higher levels of consumerism led to worse relationships with parents: children had poorer attitudes about their parents, and had more disagreements with them. Children with worse relationships with parents had poorer psychological wellbeing.

*4) Using particular statistical methods, the study was able to show that these results were unidirectional: higher consumerism led to poorer psychological wellbeing and poorer relationships with parents, and not the other way round. These results were interpreted as follows:

*A) People who are more envious of others, worry more about how much they have, have stronger desires to acquire money and possessions, and place more importance on financial success are more likely to be depressed and anxious.

*B) Desiring less, rather than getting more, seems to be the key to contentment and well-being.

*C) Children who are more consumerist may be less inclined to socialise with their peers, siblings and parents, and may have poorer social connections overall. They may be less engaged in satisfying, creative and educational activities such as reading, unstructured play, or physical activity. They may have poorer imagination.

*D) Consumerism may be a substitute for what keeps children happy and healthy.

*E) Excessive consumerism reduces children’s self-esteem in the areas of peer and family relationships.

*F) The more enmeshed children are in consumer culture, the more they suffer for it: “the bottom line on the culture they’re raised in is that it’s a lot more pernicious than most adults have been willing to admit”.

Schor is not alone in ending up at these findings. Other researchers of the field have come to similar conclusions. Some of these researchers are Tim Kasser, Richard Ryan, Marcia Richins, Scott Dawson and Russell Belk. These authors’ research confirm that excessive focus on consumer goods leads to unhappiness and distress, and this happens in men and women, teens and adults, across income groups and across countries. As Schor writes, “the clear conclusion of all this work is that the more strongly a person subscribes to materialist values, the poorer is his or her quality of life”.

Decommercialising the Household

Schor describes that one major way to decrease children’s consumerism is to decrease their media exposure. She writes: “those who were most successful were thoughtful and consistent in their rules and choices. They spent a lot of time with their children. And perhaps most important, these families’ lives were full of engaging alternatives to the corporate offerings”. Rules were tailored to the needs of individual children, and children made the most of doing homework, sports, extracurricular activities and outdoor play.

Some people say that depriving children of media and popular consumer goods leads to the ‘forbidden fruit syndrome’; that if you deprive a child of something, they’ll want it more. They also worry that these children will miss out socially. However, there is no evidence that this is the case, especially when the following steps are taken:

*1) Filling children’s lives with play and other creative and social activities. This enhances their creativity and teaches them how to amuse themselves. Activities such as reading, writing poetry, doing art projects and getting exercise makes children more complete persons.

*2) Parents spending quality time with their children.

*3) Parents discussing the dangers of consumerism and excessive media with their children.

*4) Parents leading by example in limiting their own media use and consumeristic habits.

*5) Families staying well-connected with their communities, such as their church communities.

*6) Children and families reconnecting with nature, which helps them to keep active and spend quality time with each other. Fostering children’s connection to the outdoors enhances emotional and spiritual well-being.

Many of these activities require time and energy. For many families, this is difficult, especially when they have financial pressures or other stressors. However, as Schor writes, “reducing stress and finding time are crucial to engaging with kids in less commercial ways”. She points out some research showing that most children would like their parents spending more time and doing more fun things with them (e.g. bike riding, gardening, playing ball games or visiting a zoo or aquarium), much more than wanting them to earn more money.

Schor concludes by saying: “The prevalence of harmful and addictive products, the imperative to keep up, and the growth of materialist attitudes are harming kids. If we are honest with ourselves, adults will admit that we are suffering from many of the same influences. That means our task should be to make the world a safer and more life-affirming place for everyone. Reversing corporate-constructed childhood is a good first step”.

(Source: Greek-Australian Vema – August 2012 Pg. 7/25)

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