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Barbara Wilson, expert on the effects of media on youth

11/8/2013  8:00 am

Today’s teens are sometimes called the Facebook Generation, a reference to the ubiquitous presence of electronic media in their lives. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently recommended that parents put children on a “media diet,” limiting total entertainment screen time to less than two hours per day for children ages 2 and older, and discouraging all screen media exposure for children under 2.

Barbara Wilson, who is an expert on the social and psychological effects of media on youth, recently spoke with News Bureau education editor Sharita Forrest about the AAP’s policy statement and the impact of media on children. Wilson is the Kathryn Lee Baynes Dallenbach Professor in the department of communication at the University of Illinois. She also is the executive vice provost for faculty and academic affairs in the Office of the Provost.

As a researcher, what is your reaction to the AAP’s recommendations that parents limit screen time for children?

image of professor barb wilsonIt’s a recommendation that encourages parents to think about how much time kids are spending with media. A lot of parents just don’t track this very closely, so I think it is a good idea.

However, parents shouldn’t just focus on the amount of time that children spend with media because there are positive, prosocial aspects of the media, such as “Sesame Street” and websites that are full of educational material. To just say that “media are bad” and that kids shouldn’t spend much time with media is a little too simplistic.

I think the challenge is sorting out the content that kids spend time with and what kinds of TV programs, movies, video games and social media they are consuming. There are media products that can certainly be educational and good for kids, and there are products that can be potentially harmful.

The AAP recommended that children under age 2 be discouraged from using screen media altogether. What is the potential harm to children that young?

Several researchers have pointed out that this particular recommendation may be a little conservative because we don’t have a lot of data on what screen media exposure does to infants ages 0-2. I think we’ll see more of that type of research in the next five years or so. It’s difficult research to do because babies are pre-verbal, so it’s very hard to measure their cognitive and emotional responses to stimuli like television.

We do know, however, that the kinds of activities that are good for infants developmentally involve interacting with human beings, playing with objects in their environment and physical activity. Plopping a baby down in front of a screen is not necessarily going to be the same kind of developmentally enriching experience.

What do we know about the impact of media violence on children behaviorally, emotionally and mentally?

Witnessing a single violent incident in the media isn’t going to change a child. However, there’s a good deal of evidence that indicates that heavy exposure to media violence can pose three types of harmful effects for children: increased fear, causing some children to be more frightened and more anxious about the real world; the learning of aggressive behaviors and attitudes in some children; and desensitization to real-life violence.

Not every child will be affected, and there are several factors that we can point to that will enhance the likelihood of these harmful effects. In other words, it would be inaccurate to say that all children who are exposed to media violence are going to show these kinds of effects.

One of the risk factors is how much children perceive the media content that they’re seeing to be realistic. Another risk factor is how much they identify with violent heroes in the media.

Being male is a risk factor, particularly for learning physical aggression from the media. Kids who are having trouble in school and who are not popular also show heightened risk for learning aggression from media violence.

What might be some indications or symptoms that a child has been overexposed?

In terms of fear, a parent may notice that a child is scared to go outside or to sleep alone, is experiencing nightmares, or is having anxiety about stranger danger. Often these types of reactions are a result of being exposed to violence in entertainment media or even in the news.

In terms of desensitization, children who are heavy consumers of media violence may seek increasingly violent content in order to feel excitement or arousal. More importantly, research shows that kids who are exposed repeatedly to media violence are less likely to intervene and get help when they witness real violence compared to kids in a no-exposure control group. So a child who is desensitized to screen violence might be more tolerant of bullying or fights that they observe in the real world.

It seems that we are seeing instances of younger and younger kids going on killing sprees in their schools, and every time one of these tragedies occurs, it reignites debate about kids’ exposure to violent video games and movies. Have researchers found credible evidence linking these outbursts to kids’ exposure to media violence?

It’s very difficult to draw those kinds of conclusions from these isolated, very horrific crimes. The reasons for such violent outbursts are complex and difficult to disentangle after the fact. The best kind of research, the research that shows causality, is where children are brought into laboratories and they’re shown different things on a screen and then observed afterward. Obviously, we would never want to cause real aggression in any of those kinds of studies.

However, there are many longitudinal studies that have tracked children over time in terms of their exposure to media violence and their aggressive behavior. Even after controlling for a host of factors such as poverty, socioeconomic status and parental violence, these studies show that early exposure to media violence predicts an increase over time in real-life aggression, which includes physical aggression in school and in peer group interactions.

In some of your research, you have been looking at a different form of violence called social aggression. It seems that many reality series and comedies on television today revolve around social aggression, such as trading insults and plotting revenge, but parents might not perceive these shows as being harmful when there’s no physical violence being shown.

Yes, we have looked at how much social aggression is portrayed in TV programs that are popular among children.
Examples of social aggression include spreading rumors, name calling, shutting other children out of social groups or teasing in a hostile, repetitive way.

In one study, Nicole Martins (who earned her doctorate at Illinois) and I documented that 92 percent of these shows contained some form of social aggression, and that on average, there were 14 different incidents of social aggression per hour in these shows. Furthermore, many of these incidents were couched in humor.

In one of our studies, we found that kids who watched a lot of social aggression on TV also showed higher levels of social aggression in their friendships and in school. However, this was true only for girls and not for boys. The survey was based on correlational data, though, so we can’t be sure what is causing what here. But it suggests that young girls may be learning social aggression from media examples.

As it turns out, social aggression is more common among girls than among boys. And even though there is no physical sign of harm, social aggression can be quite painful and can have long-term psychological effects, in some cases to the same degree as physical aggression. However, a lot of this behavior goes undetected in schools. Teachers don’t necessarily see social aggression as easily. In a way, it’s more hidden. It’s more subtle.


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