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Response by Michael Rich, MD, MPH

Director, Center on Media and Child Health 

 

On the Release of

Wolves in Sheep's Clothing: A content Analysis of Children's Television 

 

As a pediatrician, child health researcher, and parent, I am concerned by the findings of this study.  It is particularly timely that we examine the content being offered to our children as we approach the rapid expansion of media programming that will occur with the national conversion to digital television broadcast. 

 

Last December 14, a settlement was reached by the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Psychological Association, National PTA and other child advocacy organizations with a consortium of entertainment companies that objected to rules proposed by the Federal Communications Commission for children's television in the digital era.  Similar to the Children's Television Act of 1990, the final agreement included a commitment that each broadcast channel would provide at least three hours of children's educational programming per week. Unfortunately, this content analysis of children's television makes such guarantees less than reassuring.  Three hours of children's television from this study would contain 24 acts of violence, six examples of verbal abuse, and two portrayals of sexual behavior.  As was found with the Children's Television Act, assurance of minimum amounts of industry-defined children's programming does not protect children from exposure to material that can threaten their health and safety.

 

Children learn from media.  Research has shown that exposure to media violence can lead to fear and anxiety, desensitization to the suffering of others, and increases in aggressive attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors.  A more recent, smaller body of evidence indicates that similar increases in other health risk behaviors, including unsafe sexual activity and the use of tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs, are found among young people exposed to media portrayals of these behaviors as normative and attractive.  Yet the entertainment industry persists in including such content in children's programming.  Every day more children are exposed. 

 

This can no longer be reduced into a simple issue of competing values.  Such debate has led repeatedly to stalemate, stopped in its tracks by the First Amendment.  Today's children use media for more hours than they spend in school, with parents, or engaged in any activity except sleeping.  If they were exposed to even miniscule amounts of an air pollutant or food additive that increased their risk of violent injury, substance use, or unsafe sex, we would be unified in our efforts to remove it from their environment.  In the Information Age, the average child is now exposed to over 8 hours of media content each day, media must be seen and understood as a powerful environmental influence on their physical, mental, and social health.

 

We have defaulted to the entertainment industry the decision about what is safe and healthy for our children.  This study shows exactly what our children are learning when we trust them to the electronic babysitter.  The entertainment industry has long contended that public worries about media content are just culture wars.  Research that has raised concern among health professionals and teachers has been discounted and obfuscated to the point where parents do not know what to think or do.  Far more heat than light has been generated by this issue - and in the confusion, parents are paralyzed and children are exposed to risk.

 

What this study has found in children's television concerns us, but we still do not have adequate scientific data with which to inform parents how media affect their children and to convince media producers that they must create products that do not harm their users.  Senator Sam Brownback, along with colleagues from both parties and both houses of Congress, has had the vision to realize that we must treat media exposure as a public health issue.  He has sponsored important and timely legislation that will bring to media exposure the same scientific rigor, seriousness, and compassion that our best scientists have applied to understanding heart disease, cancer, and traffic safety, saving millions of lives.  The Children and Media Research Advancement Act, known as CAMRA, will authorize the first dedicated Federal research support for investigating how media affect us and developing programs and policies to protect children from harm and promote positive influences of media. The findings presented today have demonstrated that now, more than ever, we are in need of knowledge to focus society's concern and give clear direction to our response.  Recognizing that something is not right in children's television is an important first step.  Now we must apply our resources, ingenuity and energy to characterizing how media affect us and to creating a safe and healthy media environment for our children and our future.

 

 

Michael Rich, MD, MPH is founder and Director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children's Hospital Boston, an interdisciplinary group committed to pursuing research, developing interventions on negative health effects of media, and creating health-positive media.  Dr. Rich was honored by the Society for Adolescent Medicine with their New Investigator Award for developing Video Intervention/Prevention Assessment (VIA), which explores the illness experience through patient-created visual illness narratives.  He received the 2005 Holroyd-Sherry Award from the American Academy of Pediatrics for his contributions to children, adolescents and the media. Dr. Rich has authored numerous research papers and pediatric policy statements, and delivered testimony on the health effects of media to policymakers from city councils to the U.S. Congress.  He is Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, Assistant Professor of Society, Human Development and Health at Harvard School of Public Health, and practices adolescent medicine and pediatrics at Children's Hospital Boston.

 

 

Full Report | Press Release | Executive Summary |Statement by L Brent Bozell |Comments by Senator Brownback | Response by Nell Minow "The Movie Mom"

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