By Liz Szabo, USA TODAY
Parents and policymakers need to take action to protect children from being harmed by TV, the Internet and other types of media, a report says.
Researchers have done individual studies for years to learn how media affect children. A review released today, which analyzed 173 of the strongest papers over 28 years, finds that 80% agree that heavy media exposure increases the risk of harm, including obesity, smoking, sex, drug and alcohol use, attention problems and poor grades.
Some of the links are particularly strong. For example, 93% of studies found that children with greater media exposure have sex earlier. Authors say the soundest studies are those linking media use with obesity, while the evidence linking media exposure to hyperactivity is weaker.
The study provides overwhelming evidence of the importance of limiting children's use of media and teaching them to critically evaluate the ever-growing volume of text, images and sounds with which they are bombarded, says co-author Ezekiel Emanuel of the National Institutes of Health. He says the report also urges Hollywood and technology makers to create entertainment that is less toxic and more family-friendly.
"The idea that this is having a really measurable adverse impact on health makes it important to take this seriously," Emanuel says. "Every year, we have 4 million new kids. How long are we going to wait?"
The average child spends nearly 45 hours a week immersed in media — almost three times the amount of time they spend with their parents, according to the report, commissioned by Commonsense Media, a non-partisan watchdog group. In comparison, children spend an average of 30 hours in school.
Keeping an eye on children's media use is tougher today, says Jane Brown, a journalism and mass communication professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill who was not involved in the report. In the past, families often watched TV together, and parents could easily change the channel or voice their disapproval. Today's technology often isolates children, who may tune out their families to concentrate on a cellphone screen only they can see.
Even pediatricians struggle to stay connected to their children. Victor Strasburger, a pediatrics professor at the University of New Mexico who was not involved in the study, says he took away his 15-year-old daughter's phone when he caught her text-messaging at Thanksgiving dinner.
Michael Brody, a child psychiatrist at the University of Maryland who also was not involved in the study, says the country needs to address the onslaught of negatives images. He says children today have greater exposure to online pornography and Internet "hate sites" that attack minorities and gays.
The study's authors say policymakers also need to establish "clear limits" on marketing products such as junk food to children.
Ignoring these problems, Brody says, will only lead to even higher rates of childhood obesity, type 2 diabetes, violence and teen pregnancy.
"At some point," Brody says, "we are all going to be paying for this."
PARENTS: How do you manage your children's use of the media? Do you think you need to learn more about new technology — such as cellphones, MP3 players or the Internet? Leave any related questions or comments for reporter Liz Szabo in the comment section below.
Experts offer these tips to protect children:
� Limit screen time to one to two hours a day. Consider ditching cable or TV altogether.
� Learn about new media, such as text-messaging or social-networking websites, and how your children are using them.
� Don't rely on the ratings for video games. Instead, watch or play the games yourself.
� Don't allow children to have computers, TVs or other media in their bedrooms.
� Set limits on how a child may use a new purchase, such as an iPod, from the beginning.
Sources: Emanuel Ezekiel, National Institutes of Health; Michael Brody, University of Maryland; Jane Brown, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; Victor Strasburger, University of New Mexico School of Medicine