Monthly Archives: January 2009

Children and Electronic Media — Myth Busters

There are a lot of myths about how children use electronic media, highlighted in our recent volume, Children and Electronic Media. A longer version of this “Myth Busters” piece and other related highlights are posted on our website.

MYTH: Television is being displaced by newer forms of media.
REALITY: Despite all the new technologies, children still spend a lot of time in front of the television. Rather than newer technologies replacing television, children simply add these other media on to the time they spend watching TV.
MYTH: Children from highly educated families use electronic media the least, while children in less educated families use it the most.
REALITY: Youth whose parents had completed college reported the most media exposure, while those whose parents had completed no more than high school reported less but were not far behind. The group with the least media exposure was children whose parents had some college education.
MYTH: Marketing to children can never have positive outcomes.
REALITY: While advertising is often used to steer children and youth toward unhealthy behaviors, marketing can also be used effectively to promote positive healthy choices such as not smoking or using illicit drugs, reducing obesity, and delaying sexual activity – some of which are highlighted our policy brief, “Using Media to Promote Adolescent Wellbeing,” and in an article by Doug Evans on social marketing campaigns.
MYTH: Video games have no educational value.
REALITY: Violent video games can promote aggressive (though not necessarily criminal) behavior, but many other types of video games promote positive outcomes. Studies have found, for instance, that playing select video games can enhance visual awareness, including greater capacity to pay attention, quicker attention deployment, and faster processing.
MYTH: Adolescents use online communication primarily to communicate with strangers.
REALITY: Teens mostly use the Internet to communicate with friends and maintain already existing relationships. However, even teens who only seek to communicate with friends may do so in inappropriate ways that leave them vulnerable to harassment. Moreover, some contact with strangers – seeking out health information, for example — is not necessarily negative.
MYTH: Television is appropriate for all ages, so long as it is educational.
REALITY: Watching television is unlikely to be beneficial for infants and toddlers and could actually be harmful. Research shows that viewing educational television can have positive effects for preschoolers and older children, but there is no research supporting the same outcomes for children ages two and under.
MYTH: Ratings systems are reliable ways to know the content and appropriateness of a movie, television, or video game program.
REALITY: Ratings are rarely well understood by the general public. They are inconsistent from media to media, parents are often not fully aware of the information and criteria used in each rating system, and sometimes parents are even unaware that the ratings exist. Even among parents who report using industry-provided ratings and advisories, most do not find them to be “very useful.”
MYTH: Electronic media are keeping kids from reading.
REALITY: It does not seem that time with media greatly displaces reading or doing homework, largely because American youth spend so little time doing either.
For more information, see Children and Electronic Media, eds. Jeanne Brooks-Gunn and Elisabeth Donahue, Spring 2008 and our 10-paper series of short "Highlights" for articles on all the topics presented above.

Obesity Report Cards — A good idea or waste of money?

As recently reported in The Boston Globe, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has proposed a far reaching anti-obesity campaign in an effort to reverse the trend of growing waistlines. The initiative includes a proposal to provide “BMI Report Cards” to Massachusetts school children. Under this plan, public schools would be required to measure the height and weight of 1st, 4th, 7th, and 10th grade students and calculate their Body Mass Index (BMI) with this data to determine if a student is overweight. That information would be sent home with the student, along with detailed advice on proper nutrition and exercise.

According to a Future of Children article on the role of schools in obesity prevention, BMI Report Cards have shown some promise in school districts where they have been implemented, but they are not without controversy. In particular, if they are delivered in a vacuum without other environmental changes, they can be a wasted effort. Specifically, they must be part of a comprehensive approach that includes providing healthy food choices and eliminating junk food offerings in the schools, making health education part of the curriculum, providing quality physical education on a regular basis, and making time for recess.
These changes are not easy, as noted in our policy brief, “Fighting Obesity in the Public Schools.” But they must be part of the overall effort. Providing BMI Report cards while continuing to offer junk food in school or cutting recess and P.E. is not only counterintuitive, but potentially a waste of education dollars. In this time of drastic school budget cuts, we cannot afford to throw money at an effort that is unlikely to yield comprehensive benefits. Without a doubt, we need to address the issue of childhood obesity. But we need to do so holistically, realizing that providing information without a supportive environment in which to make needed changes is a waste of time and money.
For information on childhood obesity trends, see "Childhood Obesity: Trends and Potential Causes," Patricia Anderson and Kristen Butcher
For a comprehensive overview, see The Future of Children: Childhood Obesity

Teen Birth Rates on the Rise — Policies to Reverse Course

As recently reported in USA Today, a report issued by the National Center for Health Statistics shows that between 2005 and 2006, the teen birth rate increased in 26 states, reversing a 14-year decline in teen birth rates. While states that historically had the lowest birth rates showed non-significant changes (New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut), states with already high teen birth rates (Arkansas, Mississippi, New Mexico, Texas) showed increases, leaving Mississippi with the highest rate of 68.4 births for every 1,000 female teen ages 15-19. Alaska showed the greatest increase in teen birth rates (up 19%), while the District of Columbia reported the most dramatic decline in rates (down 24%).

The numbers do not bode well for child wellbeing. In study after study, research has shown that children born and raised in single mother households are poorer than other children, and that other negative child outcomes follow. Children born to teen unmarried mothers, who often interrupt schooling to have their babies, are most vulnerable. A Hoffman and Foster study cited in a recent volume of the Future of Children volume on Poverty estimated that delaying childbearing among teens would increase median family income by a factor of 1.5 to 2.2, and reduce poverty rates by even more.

The policy goal, therefore, is to reverse course and return to the downward trend in teen pregnancy. But how do we do that? In their Future of Children article on this topic, Greg Duncan and Katherine Magnuson demonstrate that programs to prevent teen childbearing by reducing sexual activity and promoting contraceptive use have NOT been proven to be successful. More often than not, programs designed to postpone sexual behavior fail to delay its onset or reduce its frequency. Some more intensive interventions that provide mentoring and constructive after-school activities have had more positive results, but it is unclear whether these can be replicated on a larger scale.
Two other Future of Children authors, Paul Amato and Rebecca Maynard agree that the evidence on the effectiveness of programs is slim, and what we do know is not encouraging. However, they note that the programs have never truly been tested in an experimental setting. Therefore, they argue that schools should continue to offer health and sex education, starting no later than middle school, and that promising programs should be tested using the “gold standard” of research, where the comparison group is truly “treatment free.” Armed with good social science data, the federal government could provide school districts with tested curriculum models.
Since some teens, particularly low-income youth, still get pregnant despite access to contraception, we need to consider and challenge the social norms that have led to acceptance of teen child bearing. Education programs and public service campaigns (some of which are profiled in “Using the Media to Promote Adolescent Wellbeing") can support the message that nonmarital childbearing, particularly in the teenage years, is NOT an expected stage in life.
The investment in good, research based programs would be worth it. If a universal program initiative succeeded in cutting the teenage birth rate in half, the estimated return on the investment would be approximately 20 percent.
For more information, see