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Clinical Center Study on Children and Media Exposure

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Brief Description:

According to new study released by the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center and Yale University, many parents are sitting idly by when their children are being threatened by overexposure to media.


Schmalfeldt:  In a thorough review of nearly 30 years of research, taking into account 173 separate studies conducted since 1980, investigators determined that heavy media exposure—TV, the Internet, music and movies—leads to an increased risk of obesity, tobacco use and early sexual behavior among our children and adolescents.  Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, director of the Department of Clinical Bioethics at the NIH Clinical Center, said the results were surprising.

Emanuel:  The first thing that surprised me is such an overwhelming amount of negative evidence about the association between media and health outcomes.  I think the association between media and violence is pretty well known.  But the idea that we had such an overwhelming about of negative studies about media and obesity, media and smoking, media and educational attainment, media and sex—I didn't anticipate that.  The fact that 80 percent of the studies we would find would have this negative association, that's pretty surprising.

Schmalfeldt: The study reported that kids spend about 45 hours a week exposed to various media sources like TV, movies, music, cellphones, video games and magazines.  In addition to the increased risk of obesity, tobacco use and early sexual activity, the report also pointed to a moderately increased risk of drug and alcohol use and lower academic achievement.  Not as strong was the evidence of a link between heavy media exposure and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.  Dr. Emanuel said it’s not enough to blame parents, or the media content providers, or even public health authorities.

Emanuel:  I don't think anyone ought to escape unscathed here.  Look.  Parents do have a primary responsibility.  In addition, however, our society sends them messages about what it is to be a good parent and what kind of activities good parents let their kids engage in.  And that, I think, we probably have sent somewhat the wrong message— that if you don't expose your kids to computers they'll be ignoramuses and they won't be ready for the 21st Century jobs.  I think quite the contrary.  What you really want are kids who are creative, and there's no evidence that being exposed to the various media enhances creativity.  You want them to be literate and to have read, and there's no evidence, again, that being exposed to media increases their reading.  You want them to be able to persist with problems and issues and to work hard at them, and again—if anything—media probably shortens their attention span, although that's not hard proven.  It seems to me delaying the exposure is probably good.

Schmalfeldt:  Dr. Emanuel doesn’t believe censorship is the answer.  Nor does he suggest complete censorship or a total banishment of media from the home.

Emanuel:  I don't think in the modern world you can raise your kids cocooned away from the media—it's just not possible.  I do think what you need to do in terms of raising kids is, first, follow the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation of no media before two.  We don't know when's the right time to introduce media.  If you are going to introduce things like TV and videos, you should have pretty substantial limits.  And, in my view, what you really need is to provide them with alternative activities for satisfaction.  There's cooking.  There's art, whether it's clay or drawing or sewing.  Our kids have access to more things.  The idea that the only option is "media or nothing" just seems to completely lack imagination.

Schmalfeldt:  Dr. Emanuel said further research is needed.  In the meantime, he suggested that parents consider the fact that there’s a lot more to being a good parent than making sure your kids have the latest electronic gizmos.

Emanuel:  I actually do think we need a set of social policies and a lot of social reinforcement of parents who are limiting this—especially for young kids.  And I don't think we have that now.

Schmalfeldt:  The report suggested that parents educate their children to help them critically evaluate the media messages that bombard them every day.  It also called on media content creators to come up with more family-friendly entertainment.  The study was funded by the NIH Clinical Center Department of Clinical Bioethics, and the nonprofit organization Common Sense Media.  If you would like more information about clinical research going on every day at the NIH Clinical Center, log on to  I’m Bill Schmalfeldt at the National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland.

Date: 12/15/2008

Reporter: Bill Schmalfeldt

Sound Bite: Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel

Topic: children, media, TV, Internet, music, movies

Clinical Center

This page was last reviewed on December 17, 2008 .
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