Driving while “In-text-icated”

I don’t need to tell you that texting while driving is a dangerous phenomenon that occurs at high rates . We have all seen it, and it is terrifying. We see another person who is clearly texting while driving next to us on the freeway or traveling through an intersection and we think “What if…” and shudder.

26% of teens in the U.S. say they have texted while driving, but this is not solely a teenage problem. In fact, statistics suggest that young adults are slightly more likely to text while driving than teens. However, motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death in the U.S. among youth ages 15-19, and because this blog is about youth, I want to highlight the unique processes underlying this dangerous behavior in teen drivers.

Most people believe that the problem is due to the fact that adolescents are less skilled than adults at estimating all types of risks, including the dangers of texting while driving. This belief is perpetuated by findings such as this: 77% of young drivers are very or somewhat confident that they can safely text while driving.

However, this statistic is somewhat misleading in that it suggests that the problem is that adolescents underestimate the risks of texting while driving, and therefore the solution is simply to educate them about the risks of this behavior. While this certainly might be the case for some individuals who text and drive, it is not consistent with research that indicates that adolescents are actually quite good at estimating risk (despite the fact that they indeed do take more risks!). So why this discrepancy between adolescents’ cognitions and behaviors? We can blame their brains…

The human brain is not fully developed until at least age 20, and during adolescence there are major changes occurring in the areas of brain involved in reward and decision-making. (For a more detailed explanation of these changes, read this fascinating article). Contrary to popular belief, adolescents are quite good at estimating risk, but their desire for rewards, especially immediate rewards (such as responding to the “ping” of an incoming text) is more powerful than at any other point in their development. As a result, adolescents are more likely to engage in risky behavior (such as texting while driving!), despite their knowledge of the risks. Ironically, adolescent brain research Laurence Steinberg made the following analogy: “The teenage brain is like a car with a good accelerator but a weak brake. With powerful impulses under poor control, the likely result is a crash.”

This problem is exacerbated when teens are in the presence of friends. A compelling example of this is seen in a study conducted by Steinberg in which adolescent and adults participants were observed while playing a driving game. When they were alone, both adolescents and adults took equal risks (e.g., going through a yellow traffic light), but adolescents took significantly more risks compared to adults when they played the same game while a peer was watching. As Steinberg explains, the explanation lies in our powerful desire for social contact and acceptance, a desire that is deeply rooted in our evolutionary history and is at its peak during adolescence.

In light of this research, consider this: 40% of all teens 12-17 say that they have been in a car while the driver was using a cell phone in a way that placed the passengers in danger (Pew Research, 2009), yet youth (especially males) ages 18-20 are less likely to speak up than older adults if they are a passenger in a car and the driver is texting. I suspect that the explanation for these statistics lies in the power of social rewards for teens, which makes them less likely to speak up even when they feel unsafe.

What can we do as a society and as parents? As always, there are no easy answers to this question. I suggest two broad solutions- one is an immediate solution for families and the other is a long-term societal solution.

Immediate solution = Reduce the temptation

Something that you can do today to increase the safety of everyone in your family is to reduce the temptation for reward seeking while driving. How? There are many apps available for all types of phones that deactivate specific phone features (such as text notifications) while driving. For youth who are horrified at the social consequences of not responding immediately to a text (that is an issue for another blog post!), there are even apps that will notify the sender that the receiver is driving and can’t currently respond. To increase buy-in, discuss with your adolescent the information in this post. Chances are, your child already has a realistic appraisal of the risks of texting and driving, and you may even discover that your teen is relieved to have an app to reduce the temptation.

Long-term solution = Change the norms

I was recently at a media conference and attended a lunch panel on this topic. Among the issues discussed was the widespread acceptance of texting while driving. In order for our society to see a significant decrease in this behavior, norms have to change. A parallel was drawn with driving while intoxicated; whereas once upon a time people would casually joke or brag about driving drunk, this is less likely to occur today because this behavior is now stigmatized by our society. We can’t rely on legislation or the automotive industry to be the solution; rather, we have to loudly proclaim, with both our words and our actions, our abhorrence of driving while in-text-icated to our friends and family. We are not there yet as a society, but the recent increase in PSA’s focused on texting while driving (Note: viewer discretion advised) have me hopeful that change is coming. I just hope it doesn’t get worse before it gets better.  Please share this post– you could save a life!



Categories: technology safety | 2 Comments

The most important questions that we cannot answer about media and child development

I just returned from 3 days at the National Academy of Sciences conference on Digital Media and the Developing Mind. I gathered with other researchers and practitioners in the fields of psychology, sociology, medicine, neuroscience, and education to discuss what we know, what we don’t know, and what we most desperately need to know about the impact of media on the development of children and adolescents. It was an exciting event, and I left both invigorated and exhausted.

I attended the conference as a researcher, but I also processed the information as a parent. One of the central questions of the conference has both professional and personal ramifications: “Based on the current state of scientific knowledge, what are the best parenting practices in a media-saturated society?” This is perhaps one of the most difficult and important questions that I grapple with every day as parent.

My goal of this blog is to reflect on parenting experiences within the context of scientific research on media effects. As a result, the empiricist in me hesitates to express my opinions and concerns if I do not have research links to back up my reflections. Tracking down research links for the science that I know exists takes time, and accounts for the scarcity of my posts. So I decided to deviate from my usual format, and instead simply reflect on what I heard over the past 3 days, without taking the time to provide research links. Over the next few months, I will delve more deeply into some of these topics, at which point I will supplement my thoughts with research.

As I read through my 25 pages of notes on the conference, I highlighted the statistics, findings, and questions that struck me the most—not as a researcher, but as a parent.   Some of these were new, some were old. But the juxtaposition of all of these findings overwhelmed and alarmed me, which was surprising, given that I have been studying media and child development for well over 15 years. Here is what I heard during this conference that I think is most important for parents to reflect on; although there will undoubtedly be differences in opinion regarding what these findings means for parenting, I think most of us will agree that they must mean something for parenting:

  • In 1970 the average age a child starting watching TV was 4 years; today it is 4 months.
  • Consumption of entertainment programming in early childhood is associated with a 60% increased risk for later attention problems, whereas violent content is associated with a 110% increased risk.
  • Virtual reality devices are coming on the market very soon, likely within a year, and we have no idea what the impact of this technology is on children.
  • 73% of teens have access to a smartphone (up from 33% just a few years ago), and 25% of teens report that they use smartphones “almost constantly”.
  • 92% of adults in multiple countries say they concentrate best when reading print media, rather than reading on a digital device.
  • People in the iGeneration report that they attempt to pair (by multitasking) 84% of the everyday activities they were asked about.
  • Preference for multitasking is one of the best predictors of low school grade point average.
  • College students who report that they are high multitaskers experience intense anxiety within minutes if told they cannot touch their phones.
  • Digital multitasking is associated with deficits in cognitive abilities, and may change the structure of the brain in negative ways.
  • In a series of 11 studies, when left alone in a room for 6-15 minutes, many people would rather self-administer electric shock than be alone with their thoughts.
  • 3 out of 4 fatal car crashes involve driver distraction; driving while “in-text-icated” is widespread and will get worse before it gets better.
  • 73% of parents report that they use devices during mealtimes.
  • 89% of Americans say they took out phone during their last conversation; yet 82% know it deteriorated the conversation.
  • 8% of youth in the U.S. meet the diagnostic criteria for video game addiction.
  • 30% of youth in South Korea meet the criteria for smartphone addiction.
  • The “ping” of a cell phone releases dopamine (the “feel good” chemical) in the brain.
  • 18% of adults surveyed in the UK admit they have interrupted sex to answer a text.
  • Between 50-90% of U.S. teens are not getting enough sleep; teens today get an average of 2 hours less sleep per night than teens 100 years ago.
  • Screen time is associated with increased sleep problems in children and adolescents, which in turn leads to serious behavioral and neurological problems.
  • E-readers suppress the release of melatonin (an important precursor of sleep) by about 90 minutes.
  • Children consume about 1/3 of their daily calories while in front of a screen, and eat much more when in front of screens compared to eating without distraction.
  • Interviews with adolescents about their thoughts about technology yields comments such as these:
    • “I’m glad I don’t have anything controversial to say, because I would have to put it online and then it isn’t private.”
    • “We can always be perfect on our phones, because we can always edit.”
    • “My generation is the first that never has to be bored.”

Many thoughts and questions are now swirling through my head, with a greater intensity than they were before this conference. Some of these questions were posed by conference participants, whereas some are my own. Here are the top 3 questions that have been occupying my thoughts:

#1: How can children develop self-control in a society that values instant gratification?

#2: What will the development of empathy and interpersonal skills look like in the current generation, which is the first to be raised since birth with an abundance of digitally mediated interpersonal communication?

#3: How can I modify my own media habits and my parenting practices regarding media use for the betterment of my family?

I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I will continue to work with other researchers and parents to try to find the answers. Our children are depending on it.

Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Plugging in tiny brains

It was just a matter of time, I guess.  Fisher Price has just released the iPad bouncy seat for infants.

Although there is currently no published research on the effects of iPads on infant development, the research on infants and television has led psychologists and the American Academy of Pediatrics to recommend no screen time for children under the age of 2.

Despite this recommendation, screen time for infants is the norm.  According to national surveys, 40% of babies are viewing television by 3 months of age, with the median age of first viewing at 9 months.  Infants under the age of 1 year watch an average of 49 minutes of television per day, and 30% have a television in their bedroom.  These statistics are several years old, so these numbers are likely even higher today.

Because infants do not have the motor skills to touch and control iPad screens, they cannot be an interactive device.  Therefore, putting an infant in front of an iPad is comparable to putting them in front of a television, and there is reason to believe that the effects of an iPad will parallel the effects of television on infant development.  As such, the research on television is useful for discussing both why the iPad bouncy seat will likely be extremely popular, as well as why it is a terrible idea.

Several years ago, Zimmerman and colleagues conducted a study in which they surveyed parents about the use of TV and DVDs with their infants.  When asked why they had their babies view, many reasons were given.  Here are the top 3 reasons (in order), along with the research-based counterarguments.

Parent Belief #1 = “It is good for their brains”

FALSE.  Research has demonstrated that children under 1 year of age cannot learn from screens, even if they are watching programs aimed at infants, such as Baby Wadsworth.  Researchers have coined the term “video deficit” to describe the inability in experimental settings for infants to learn even simple imitation from 2-D representations such as videos.  (They also can’t learn language from screens).  Similarly, very young children don’t understand content of videos, indicated by their equal preference to view distorted (e.g., played backwards) and non-distorted clips from popular children’s programs.

Although there is no evidence of cognitive benefits of infant screen time, there is accumulating evidence of harmful effects.  Here are just a few:

1. Zimmerman & Christakis (2005) found that TV viewing before age 2 was associated with decreased vocabulary, digit span memory, and reading skills.

2. Barr et al (2010) found that infants exposed to adult TV programs scored lower on cognitive tests and school readiness at age 4.

3. Zimmerman et al (2007) found that each hour of viewing of baby videos was associated with a significant drop in children’s verbal skills.

Parent Belief #2 =  “It is enjoyable for my child”

FALSE.  Parents assume that if an infant stares at a screen and cries when it is removed, that they must be “enjoying” it.  In order to understand why this is a false assumption, one needs to know a little bit about the infant brain.  Infants brains are very reflexive; that is, many infant response are automatic, rather than controlled responses.  For example, until the motor cortex of the brain develops, the movement of the arms and legs is primarily a reflex controlled by the lower areas of the brain.  Infants’ attraction to screens is driven by the visual-orienting reflex.  Our brains our wired to respond to novelty, especially bright colors, loud sounds, and flashing lights.  This is basically a startle reflex, and it accounts for why infants stare at video screens.  It does not mean they are enjoying the stimulation- rather, they are slaves to their own reflexes and actually do not have the control to look away.  This can actually be stressful to infants, and may have harmful effects on a developing brain that has not evolved to tolerate all this stimulation.  For example, although there is not conclusive evidence that early screen time leads to the development of attention problems, it also has not been ruled out as a possibility.  At this point in time, we just don’t know the effects of all this stimulation on the developing brain.

Parent Belief #3  = “I can get things done”

TRUE.  Yes, the iPad bouncy seat will work as a babysitter.  Strap them in, and you can have hours of time to get things done.  But remember who the babysitter is, and what potential harm might result from it.  For thousands of years, parents have managed to get things done without gadgets such as an iPad bouncy seat.  Yes, it may be harder, but no one said parenting was easy.

An additional concern about screen time under the age of 2 is that it displaces parent-infant interaction time.  No gadget or program will ever be better for an infant than face-to-face interaction with a  human.  Experimental research has demonstrated that even having a screen on in the background diminishes eye contact, infant-directed language, and play quality between parents and their babies (for example, see this study).   Media exposure changes the physical and social context of baby’s development by reducing both the quantity and quality of parent-child interactions.  So please, just say “no” to plugging your baby into the iPad bouncy seat.  And spread the word to parents of infants that you know.

[EDIT on December 9:  Looks like there is also an iPad potty seat for toddlers as well. It just got named the worst toy of 2013 by the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood.]

Categories: infant media use, media gadgets, Media habits | 10 Comments

I hate Captain Underpants

I hate Captain Underpants.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, Captain Underpants is a book series that is widely popular among school-aged children.  There are 10 books in the series, and it will soon be made into an animated movie.  The Captain Underpants series details the adventures of Harold and George, two irreverent 4th graders who write comic books, play pranks, and battle mean classmates and teachers.  It is at times funny and creative, and deals with issues that school-aged children can relate to (e.g., bullies, mean teachers).  It is also full of potty humor, which undoubtedly increases its appeal for young boys.  But this is not why I hate the book series.  And why am I writing about a book series in my media blog?  Let me explain….

I haven’t read all of the books, but last night I was reading one of them with Sparky.  In the 9th book in the series, Captain Underpants and the Terrifying Re-Turn of Tippy Tinkletrousers, technology plays a central role in the antics of Harold and George.  In the story, Harold and George seek revenge on the school bully, Kipper, by carrying out a variety of pranks on Kipper and his friends.  For example, they send Kipper’s friends embarrassing texts that appear to have been sent from Kipper’s phone:


Later in the story, George and Harold trick Kipper and his friends into eating spicy pizza and then use their cell phones to videotape what happens next.  To ensure maximum humiliation of the bullies, they post the video online:


After reading this book with Sparky (who like many first grade boys, loves the books), I talked to him about George and Harold’s actions.  He said, “Oh, its okay Mom.  Kipper and his friends are bullies.”  We then discussed whether George and Harold’s behaviors were justified, given that Kipper was a bully. Fortunately, Sparky came to the conclusion of “no”.   But what about the children whose parents don’t have this discussion with them?  What messages are those children learning about “justifiable” harm to others?  In addition, what are children learning from this book about how to use technology to hurt others?  My 6-year-old has never touched a cell phone, but now has lots of creative ideas of how one might potentially use a cell phone to hurt others.  And according to the book, doing these things is hilarious and entertaining.

George and Harold were engaging in cyberbullying, which is the use of electronic technology to repeatedly harm others, either physically, socially, or psychologically.  Depending on the age of respondents and how it is defined, surveys indicate that 20-40% of youth have been the victims of cyberbullying.  You don’t have to be a developmental psychologist to know that cyberbullying is a serious problem among youth today. There has been substantial national media coverage of a variety of cyberbullying incidents over the past few years- most of us are familiar with the well-publicized cases that ended in tragedy, such as suicides.  Most recently, there was a horrific rape of a teenage girl in Steubenville, Ohio, in which the teenage rapists disseminated texts, photos, and a video of the incident online.  In the aftermath of the rape, the victim has continued to experience harassment through social media.  We are always shocked when youth commit a crime such as rape, but the posting of the video is one of the main factors that has garnered this particular case so much attention.  “Who would think to do such a thing?”, people gasp?  Hmmm.  I would suggest that if you teach young boys that it is funny to dehumanize others (be it bullies or women) and use technology to humiliate them, this is how we end up here as a society.  Am I saying that reading Captain Underpants causes children to grow up to become rapists and cyberbullies?  Of course not.  But I do find it deeply disturbing that children, who should be learning about respectful and responsible use of technology, are getting a very different message from this book series.  I do think there is a connection between the perpetuation of these messages (e.g., cyberbullying can be justifiable and is funny) and the ever-increasing tendency for youth perpetrators of bullying and violence to use technology to proudly disseminate their “conquests”.

I am not advocating banning of this book (or any book, for that matter).  I will actually continue to let Sparky read these books, because I want to encourage his love of reading and allow him to make choices about what he reads.  I also think these books provide “teachable moments” about technology that will eventually need to be addressed with Sparky, regardless of whether he had read these books.  But I do intend to discuss all of the content with him, and will try to nudge him as much as possible toward other books.  I have no problem saying to him and others, “I don’t like these books, and this is why.” Who knows, he might give up on the books just because he is tired of having these conversations with me…

Oh, and when the movie comes out, I can guarantee you that our family will not be seeing it, no matter what the rating.

Categories: cyberbullying | 4 Comments

The Inescapable Screen

I don’t need to tell you that television is ubiquitous.  According to a 2009 Kaiser Family Foundation survey, there is an average of 3.8 televisions in homes that have a least one child between the ages 8-18.  For most families, this outnumbers the number of people in the home.  Our family has just 2 sets- and one of these is in our guest room.  How many television sets is in your home and what you view should be a personal decision.  But recently, I found myself frustrated yet again by my inability to escape the plethora of screens in public places.

This past weekend, I decided to take Sparky (age 6) on a weekend mommy-son getaway.  Peaches was at camp and Hubby was out of town, so it was a great opportunity for some one-on-one bonding time with my boy.  After a day of fun that included a trip to an aquarium, scootering on the boardwalk, and skee-ball at an arcade, we headed to dinner.  I was looking forward to being able to give Sparky my undivided attention and really talk to him about whatever he wanted to.  His only request for dinner was french fries, so we headed into the first bar and grill we saw.  We walked in, and saw giant televisions everywhere, all projecting a Budweiser commercial.  Sparky’s eyes went directly to the screen and immediately glazed over.  (His simultaneous fascination/repulsion with media will be the topic of another post….).  I knew this was not the atmosphere we wanted, so we left and headed down the street.  Our second attempt was no better.  This restaurant had individual flat-screen television sets in every booth!  At this point, we were both starving, our choices within walking distance were limited, and the menu fit the bill, so I figured I would make the best of it.  I requested a table in the back, away from the rest of the customers, and turned our TV screen off (much to Sparky’s dismay).  We ordered our food, but I was soon distracted by Sparky’s inattention as his eyes flitted back and forth between me and a screen across the room.  When I mentioned it to him, he admitted he didn’t want to watch it because it was scaring him, but he was having a hard time looking away.  So, we switched seats so that he couldn’t see any screens.  Success!  Well, only for a minute.  Into the booth behind us slid a couple with a baby, who decided to watch South Park during their meal.  Sigh.  I spent the rest of dinner speaking as loudly as possible, in an attempt to prevent Sparky from hearing the highly inappropriate content that was clearly within earshot.  He couldn’t take his eyes off the cute cartoon characters at the table next door.  Fast forward to the next morning, when we headed downstairs to enjoy our free breakfast at the hotel.  The breakfast room was crowded with families.  A giant television mounted on the wall was tuned into the local morning news, announcing every horrific event happening locally and nationally.  Most of the people in the room were staring at the screen, so asking that it be turned off didn’t feel like an option.  When I suggested we eat our food elsewhere, Sparky looked noticeably relieved.  So that is why there is maple syrup on the floor of room 326 in a small hotel on the Oregon coast.

This is not the first time I have been frustrated by an inability to escape media in public places.  Almost every time we fly, there is an inflight movie (usually PG-13 or R) projected on the screen in plain sight of all the passengers, and most contain graphic images.  “Just tell your children not to look”, says the flight attendant.  Uh huh, and also don’t look at that car crash the next time you drive by, right?

Everyone should have the right to make their own media choices.  But in today’s media-saturated world, it is very hard to leave home and do so.  What a shame.

Categories: Media habits | 2 Comments

What’s a parent to do?

I have spent quite a bit of time on this blog discussing why I don’t rely on the ratings systems for any type of media.  It is my hope that research will eventually lead to an improved, universal rating system, but it is not likely to happen anytime soon.  In the meantime, here are other suggestions on how to more effectively monitor your child’s media content.

1.  Don’t completely ignore the ratings, but do use caution. 

Yes, you can’t be sure that the latest rated G-rated movie to hit the big screen will not frighten your 6-year-old, but you can be certain that you should stay clear of that R-rated Oscar nominee for best picture.

2.  Preview media whenever possible.

I say this because this is what I am “supposed” to say, but come on, who really has time for this?  And do you have to skill to get past the first screen of the latest M-rated video game to see what it contains?  Not likely.  But congrats if you have the time (and skill) to do this regularly.

3.  Let someone else do the previewing.

This is what I do. Every time.  There are tons of fabulous online resources that give you detailed content-based reviews of every type of media imaginable.  Your child has a fear of snakes?  Concerned about the glamorization of teen pregnancy?  Don’t like the f-word?  You can read about details such as this in less than 10 minutes. My favorite websites are kids-in-mind.com and commonsensemedia.org.  The latter reviews movies, TV shows, books, websites, and even smart phone apps.  Reviews are done by child development experts, parents, and kids themselves, so you can get a variety of perspectives.  Rather than saying, “I don’t want you to see this movie because it is rated PG-13, and you are only 12, you can instead state specific reasons why the content is concerning to you, which is more likely to lead to a meaningful discussion with your child.  You can even involve your child in the review process.  Peaches herself decided she did not want to see a movie after we read and discussed a review of it together.  She concluded that she didn’t want to see the movie she was clamoring for after reading reviews of it written by kids her age, many of who said they were frightened by it.

4. Co-view, and talk, talk, talk.

There is abundant research indicating that active mediation, the process of consuming and discussing media with your child, can reduce the negative effects.  However, this is only effective IF you talk about media depictions with your child.  (So sitting in silence next to your teen while they watch Texas Chainsaw 3D is not what I am suggesting).  Here are some resources for general tips on how to talk to your children about violent media, sexual media, and advertising.  If you want conversation-starters for a particular movie, TV show, video game, or even song lyrics, commonsensemedia.org gives specific discussion topics for each media product they review.  So start talking!

Categories: media monitoring | 3 Comments

Why I Don’t Rely on Ratings- Part 4

One year ago, I began a series of posts on why I don’t rely on the ratings systems for media products (TV, video games, movies).  Long story short, I got distracted and never finished the series!  The start of a new year seems like a good time to tackle unfinished projects, so here goes…

Because it has been awhile, let me first recap what has already been covered:

Problem # 1:  Ratings creep (aka, What used to be “R” is now “PG-13”)

Problem #2Inconsistency of ratings (aka, All “TV-M” shows are not created equal)

Problem #3:  The alphabet soup of the ratings system (aka, Most people don’t know what the plethora of different ratings mean)

This leads to the last two problems:

Problem #4: Age-based ratings are not useful

The current rating systems are primarily age-based rather than content-based, meaning that they provide guidelines of what age groups the media product is appropriate for (e.g. PG-13 = “some material may be inappropriate for children under 13”).  There are three problems with this approach.  First, the age-based rating systems were developed by the media industry, not child development experts.  Therefore, the age cut-offs used in the ratings are arbitrary and not based on existing knowledge about the cognitive, social, and emotional development of children and teens of different ages.

Second, research has consistently shown that parents prefer ratings that are content-based rather than age-based.  Age-based rating systems do not allow parents to make media decisions based on their personal values and concerns regarding their children’s’ exposure to language, sex, or violence. Although movie and television ratings now include some information about content, this information is only provided for some rating categories.  For example, G-rated films never contain content ratings and neither do TV-Y or TV-G television programs.

Third, age-based ratings lead to what is known as the “forbidden fruit” effect.  Research has shown that children and teens are most attracted to media content that has age restrictions.  In contrast, content-based labels do not have similar allure.  As a parent, I anticipate that someday I will experience yet another problem with age-based ratings—my children will likely say something such as, “I am 13, so I should be able to see [insert name of a movie with PG-13 rating]!” Sound familiar to anyone?  This problem only exists with age-based ratings.

Problem #5:  Ratings are not based on what research demonstrates is harmful to youth

I have mentioned several times that child development experts did not design the ratings systems.  And I am pretty certain that the individuals in the media industry responsible for the development of the ratings systems did not read up on the latest media research before they got to work.  As a result, what was created were rating systems based on idiosyncratic concerns, with no regard for what actually is harmful to children.  Let me give you two specific examples.  First, the television rating system makes a distinction between animated and non-animated violence.  Animated violence is given a content rating of FV (Fantasy violence), whereas only non-animated violence is given a content rating of V (violence).  Common sense might suggest that this is a useful distinction, but research indicates it is not.  There is ample evidence that cartoon and “fantasy” violence increase aggression in children, just as non-animated violence does.  (For a lengthy discussion of why, see this article by Steven Kirsh). A second example of how the ratings systems do not reflect media research is that the ratings systems do not take into account that how content (such as sex and violence) is portrayed can alter its effects.  For example, child viewers are much more likely to learn televised aggressive behaviors if they are rewarded; however, the current ratings system does not consider these types of factors when assigning ratings.

So, now that I have (hopefully) convinced you that the ratings systems are practically useless, the next obvious question is, “What is a parent to do?”  Stay tuned for my thoughts on that!

Categories: ratings system | 1 Comment

Dear Santa…I want an iPod Touch

It’s that time of year when children everywhere take out a pencil and a piece of paper to write to Santa, telling him they have been good, asking about Mrs. Claus, and providing a long list of things they hope to find under the tree.  As Peaches and Sparky get older, their lists become longer and more specific, and it becomes harder and harder for us to make decisions about what Santa will bring.  This year, when Peaches handed me her letter to send to the North Pole, I was completely thrown off guard.  At the top of the list, highlighted with stars, underlined, and labeled as her “very first choice” was “iPod touch”.  iPod Touch?!  My 8-year-old daughter wants a $300 electronic device to will allow her to text, visit websites, listen to music, and play  games?!  Really?!  This is a child who regularly loses her goggles at the swimming pool (and her sweatshirt at the park and………).  “Hmmm”, I said.  “I am not sure Santa will bring a gift that is not age-appropriate. Kids your age aren’t old enough for an iPod Touch.”  Peaches then proceeded to rattle off all the names of her friends who had one.  Shoot. Now I was stuck.  “Well, you can send your letter, and we will see what Santa says.”

In 2010, the Pew Internet Research Center presented data that suggested that the age at which children are getting media gadgets is getting younger and younger.  For example, one report found that 58% of 12-year-olds had cell phones, whereas virtually no older teens reported having a cell phone at that young an age. Given that this data is now 2 years old, I imagine the rates today are much higher.  (BTW, I actually could not find data on 8-year-olds.  The Kaiser Family Foundation does national surveys on 8- to 18-year-olds’ media use, but do not present results separately by age….).  Although third graders owning media gadgets is becoming more normative, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I will jump on the bandwagon.

Don’t get me wrong- I am not anti-technology and anti-media, and as an adult, I own plenty.  Media and technology can be a wonderful educational tool and source of social interaction and entertainment.  Peaches has had a iPod shuffle for about a year, and I love how it has increased her interest in music.  But I don’t see the need for an 8-year-old to enter the world of texting, apps, and Siri.  There is plenty of time for that when she gets older.  And we still know so little about the potential effects of massive screen time on the developing brains of children.  But how do I explain that to an 8-year-old girl?

When Santa receives his annual letters from Peaches and Sparky, he always writes back.  This year, he needs some help.  What do YOU think Santa should say?

Categories: media gadgets | 4 Comments

Victimization as entertainment

This week, I learned through Facebook about Blackout Haunted House, an interactive theatrical experience in New York City and L.A.   Their website advertises a terrifying experience for participants, who must be over 18 and must go through the haunted house alone.  The experience includes “crawling”, “physical contact”, and “sexual and violent situations”.  What?!  Sexual situations?  This did not sound like a typical haunted house to me.  I started to read the reviews posted on the website, and became more and more disturbed.  Here are a few that stood out to me:

“After being immersed in rules and regulations, and signing away your very life, you’ll be thrown, literally, into absolute darkness, at which point the terror begins. Sexual violation? Abuse? Torture? Nothing is off limits for the insane carnival of Blackout, the only haunted house we know of where the only way to make it through is to allow physical contact with the actors themselves. It vacillates between off-putting and terrifying… particularly when you have to stick things in your mouth… “

“The scariest haunted house in Manhattan. Expect to crawl, scream, get stapled, painted, and well – almost raped.”

“thrill seekers at Vortex Theater’s Haunted House are guaranteed to experience ‘graphic sexual and extremely violent situations,’ by foot or on their knees. ”

Another reviewer offered this reflection on the experience:

“Dude kept pouring water on my face when the bag was on my head, I couldn’t breathe, much less “bark like a real dog!” I was sucking wind and wet bag was clogging my mouth and nose, and I was hyperventilating.”

At an emotional level, I found myself revolted.  It is one thing to enjoy being scared, but it is another thing to enjoy a simulation of the experience of being physically and sexually terrorized.  There are people who are willing to PAY ($50 for 15 minutes) to participate in an experience where you feel like you are “almost raped”!?  I can only imagine how victims of sexual assault and torture– who have experienced terror and violation that is life-altering– would feel about this trivialization of their experience.  How did we get to this point as a society that mimicking these experiences has become a form of entertainment?

Once I got past my initial shock reaction, I was able to process this event from a more intellectual perspective.  As a media researcher, I concluded that the Blackout Haunted House was an excellent illustration of the massive desensitization of our society.  Desensitization refers to the decreased responsivity (both physiologically and emotionally) to a stimulus as a result of repeated exposure.  It is well-documented effect of long-term exposure to media violence (for a review, see the chapter “Do Violent Media Numb our Consciences?” in the book The Development and Structure of Consciousness).  In other words, the more violent media you watch, the less it scares you, revolts you, or elicits feelings of empathy.  Subsequently, the more intense a violent depiction has to be in order to elicit these reactions (which many individuals find thrilling and enjoyable).  The danger is that desensitization actually affects brain activity and has been repeatedly linked to higher levels of aggression and less empathy for real-life victims.  For example, experimental research with college men has shown that exposure to a few as two sexually violent slasher films lead to reduced levels of empathy for a victim in a portrayal of a rape trial (Linz et al, 1988).

In light of this research, the appeal of Blackout Haunted House in our violent-media-saturated society is easy to understand.  I predict that if I surveyed people standing in line for tickets that every one of them would report that they were habitually exposed to violent media.  But understanding it doesn’t change my feelings- it still makes me shake my head in sadness.

Categories: desensitization | 1 Comment

Mean on the Screen

This week, a study I co-authored earlier this year (with Sarah Coyne at BYU and Doug Gentile at Iowa State) popped up again on the internet.  The study examined the effects of viewing relational aggression on short-term activation of aggressive cognitions in college women.  Most of you will likely not want to read the full research report (really?), so here is one reporter’s take on it.  The take home message?  Yes, mean on the screen does affect adult viewers.  What really concerns me is how much more powerful these effects might be on child viewers.  Stay tuned for future research on that!

Categories: relational aggression | Leave a comment

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