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When it comes to TV and media, are pediatricians out of touch?

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  February 18, 2013 08:18 AM

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Recently I've been wondering if pediatricians are out of touch when it comes to media and kids.

Our messaging is pretty straightforward: turn it off. The recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics is that children under the age of 2 should not watch TV at all, and everyone else should watch no more than 2 hours a day. And when we talk about TV, we are really talking about "screens" in general, including video games and media on the Internet.

We have good reasons for our messaging. Kids who watch a lot of media are more likely to be overweight. Violent programming and games can lead to aggressive behavior, and watching media involving sex can make kids more likely to start having sex earlier. Watching fast-paced cartoons like Sponge Bob Squarepants can cause behavioral and learning problems in preschoolers--and lots of television and video games are linked to behavioral problems in older kids, too.

The problem is that people aren't listening to our messaging. And not only is it a real conversation-stopper (especially when parents aren't following our advice), we are missing an opportunity to help kids and families when it's our only message.

The reality is that screens are increasingly part of life. TV is part of life--for most kids, it's either on in front of them or in the background for many more hours than we recommend. Video games are part of life, too--and I find that lots of parents don't even think about them as screen time. The Internet has made media always available and integrated into our days in ways we sometimes don't even realize. I wrote in a commentary in the journal Pediatrics, maybe it's time we changed to a "if you can't beat  'em, join 'em" way of looking at things.

I wrote the commentary about a really interesting study by Dr. Dmitri Christakis from Seattle. In it, his team of researchers worked with parents of preschoolers. Instead of talking to them about how much TV and other media their kids watched, they educated them about the kind of media they should and shouldn't watch. They encouraged shows that modeled good behavior, like Dora the Explorer and Sesame Street. 

You know what happened? Not only did the kids watch more shows that were appropriate for them, their social behavior improved. As Christakis wrote in the study, "Although television is frequently implicated as a cause of many problems in children, our research indicates that it may also be part of the solution."

Now I'm not saying that we should entirely ditch the "turn it off" message. I want kids playing, exercising, reading, drawing, using their imagination and doing all those other things that they don't do when they are sitting in front of a screen. I'm still going to talk about turning it off.

But these days I'm talking more about what kids are watching. I think lots of parents not only don't understand how different kinds of media content affect their kids, but are also really open to ideas about what kinds of media are better for their kids--and might even help them.

I am sending more families to Common Sense Media, a fantastic website that has reviews of all different kinds of media, from movies to TV shows to apps (and books and music, too!). It helps parents make the best choices, in a very non-judgmental way. It also has information on teaching children how to navigate the world of media and be good digital citizens. This is something we really need to be teaching our children--and because it's not something we needed to learn as children, it may not occur to parents to teach it. The Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children's Hospital has lots of great information too.

I also think that pediatricians, teachers, parents and all those who work with and care about children need to do a better job of helping create good content for children to watch. I think we need to be building partnerships with the media. We aren't going to get rid of all the sex and violence, because sex and violence sell. But we could work with media to give them information and messages that they can include in their scripts, give them ideas for movies and characters and plots of TV shows...instead of complaining, we could try to make things better. As one of my favorite sayings goes: if you're not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.

Let's all be part of the solution when it comes to media and our kids.
This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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