Campus & Community

Omnipresent media hurts, helps children

4 min read

Movies, music, television, video games, and the Internet can warp the way children view sex, drugs, their bodies, and themselves, but they can also be a positive tool, educating and inoculating children against evils such as drunk driving and gang violence, according to participants at a Harvard School of Public Health symposium Friday (Oct. 5).

The symposium, “Media and Child Health: Peril and Promise” drew about 100 faculty, staff, and researchers in child health to the School of Public Health to examine the issue of how the media affect children’s development and how the media can be used for good as well as bad.

School of Public Health Dean Barry Bloom introduced the symposium, saying the topic was particularly apt in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist hijackings that had dramatic footage of the crumbling World Trade Center towers playing over and over again on television.

“This could not have come at a more appropriate time, in the aftermath of Sept. 11,” Bloom said. “We’re trying to think today about what the impact of the media is and what the value of the media could be.”

Children today spend a lot of time watching television and movies or playing video games, presenters said. The average child spends six hours and 43 minutes a day watching television, playing video games, listening to music or using other media — more time than they spend either at school or with their parents, according to one 1999 study. That same study showed that more than 99 percent of American homes have televisions, that 53 percent of American children have televisions in their rooms, and that more homes have five televisions than have just one.

“Surveys indicate that media are the largest source of information on drugs, sex, and behavior,” said Michael Rich, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and an instructor at the School of Public Health. “The kids are the most vulnerable because they’re the ones that are learning.”

Studies show that young people watch 200,000 acts of violence, including 18,000 murders, by the time they’re 18. Similarly, teenagers see more than 15,000 sexual references each year, with less than 170 having any discussion of the consequences.

Statistics — and film clips — illustrated the presenters’ messages. Some of the movies singled out as examples included “The Wizard of Oz,” in which the Wicked Witch of the West makes her famous pronouncement that “Poppies will make them sleep.” More recently, Arnold Schwartzenegger’s “Terminator” asked “Are you Sarah Connor?” before blowing an innocent housewife away and, more recently, actors knifed each other in the bloody final scene of “Scream.”

Mixed in were dozens of other images from video games whose entire point is to kill people, violent scenes from music videos, sexual situations from many movies, as well as drug use, cigarette use, alcohol use, and the perfect bodies of music, movie, and television stars telling all of us, particularly kids, what we’re supposed to look like.

But the symposium also looked at ways the media can be used to send a positive message. Topics ranged from the media being used to blunt racism and violence, to using the media to send positive health messages — or even using tools of the media, video cameras, to gather information on asthma patients.

In a study published in 2000, Rich sent video cameras home with 20 people, aged 8 to 25, to help document the day-to-day triggers of their asthma. The tapes were compared with information gathered in medical history interviews and showed unreported exposure to tobacco smoke in 63 percent of the cases as well as problems with medication such as taking too much or too little in a significant number of the cases.

Jay Winsten, associate dean for public and community affairs in the School of Public Health and director of the Center for Health Communication, talked about working with television and movie producers to craft pro-health messages, something Winsten did with some success in designing the designated driver anti-drunk driving campaign.