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November 29, 2006
Column #1,318
Advance for Dec. 2, 2006
Parents!  Media Harms Kids
By Michael J. McManus

Why are rising percentages of children physically violent and bullies? 

More than 1,000 studies - including a Surgeon General's special report and a National Institute of Mental Health study - give evidence that media violence sparks aggressive behavior in some children.  Studies show that the more "real life" the violence portrayed, the greater is the likelihood it will be "learned," said the American Academy of Pediatrics.

By age 18, an American youth will have seen 16,000 simulated murders and 200,000 acts of violence. Of course, most kids are not murderers simply because they have seen so many killings.  But the heaviest watchers of violent TV are twice as likely as those with minimal exposure to exhibit aggressive behavior toward others.

One reason kids see so much violent TV is that 54 percent of children have a TV in their bedrooms. I can't think of a more foolish decision by a parent.

When our kids were young in the 1970s and 1980s, my wife and I had one TV in the living room, which was largely off except for news and special shows like Disney. Instead, each of our three boys spent their time learning a musical instrument and played many sports. Today they are successful in quite different careers.

What about programming that is specifically created for young children?

The Parents Television Council (ParentsTV.org) looked at 443 hours targeted at children aged 5-10 on CBS, NBC, ABC, WB plus basic cable networks: ABC Family, Cartoon Network, Disney Channel and Nickelodeon.  Even excluding "cartoony" violence such as Wile E. Coyote, there were 2,794 instances of violence, or 6.3 violent incidents per hour, reports Kristen Fyfe.

Researchers also found that children-oriented programming included 858 incidents of verbal aggression (abusive yelling, mean-spirited insults or put-downs), 250 excretory epithets or near obscenities, 595 disrespectful acts and 275 incidents with sexual content!

Not surprisingly, what kids see influences what they do. 

Even the kids acknowledge the impact. Nearly half say they select more violent material to watch alone than if watching with parents. Two-thirds of young people admit that shows like "The Simpsons" and "Married with Children" encourage kids to disrespect parents.

However, today's world has new technologies to engage children, such as video games.
In a "Video Game Report Card" released this week,  the National Institute on Media and the Family estimated that children ages 8-18 spend more time (44.5 hours per week) in front of computer, television and game screens than they spend on any other activity in their lives except sleeping.

This passive activity is a major reason that rising percentages of kids are obese.

"Children who spend more time playing video games are heavier, and are more likely to be classified as overweight or obese," the Institute stated. It also reports "the amount of time kids spend playing video games is correlated with poorer grades in school and attention problems."

Another alarming result is that many are becoming addicted to video games, with such symptoms as "obsessive behavior, deceitful behavior, neglecting people and responsibilities and increased isolation." Some not only are expelled from school but also "alienate themselves from everyone in their lives, and in extreme cases to commit suicide."

So should parents forget about giving video games to kids?  Not necessarily. The Institute' Report Card rate the games according to their danger.  New sports games are healthy, as are LEGO Star Wars II - The Original Trilogy, Roboblitz and other E-rated games.

Previous Report Cards have influenced major retailers such as Best Buy, Target and Wal-Mart to stop selling M-rated games to kids, according to "sting" operations in which 14 kids aged 10-16 tried to buy them, but stores specializing in video games sold them a third of the time.

Dr. David Walsh, creator of the Report Cards, urges parents "to pay more attention to the games our kids are playing and how much time they are spending playing games. Watch what your kids watch, play what your kids play."

Three-fourths of parents surveyed say they "always" help decide what games their children buy or rent, but only 30 percent of children agree. Parents are also twice as likely as kids to say there are rules about how much time can be spent on video games.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than one to two hours of screen time per day, including time spent on video games, TV, videos/DVDs and computer use.

Parents clearly need to learn to say "No." 

However, they can say "Yes" to an E-game, or better, taking music lessons or joining a soccer league.
 
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