US President-elect Barack Obama keeps asking parents to turn off their TV sets, and with reason. A US National Institutes of Health review of 173 studies about the effects of media on children linked too much television, films, video games, magazines, music and the Internet to aggression, childhood obesity, early tobacco use and risky sexual behaviour.
It’s been established that media has a psychological impact on children’s minds deep enough to shape attitudes and affect long-term behaviour. With TV shows and games now available for children as young as two, exposure to the media is increasingly starting young.
And children know exactly what they want to watch. Akarshit Wadhwa, 5, was devastated when his favourite anime, Shin-Chan, went off-air under pressure from disapproving parents and a critical government. “It’s just a cartoon show. Why is the government bothered with a kids show?” he cribs.
Mom Sunanda Kapoor says the programme had objectionable content, but insists banning it is not the answer. “Akarshit went to a friend’s house yesterday and saw some episodes of Shin-Chan on YouTube. Media is all around us and it’s becoming impossible to stop children’s exposure to it,” says Kapoor.
Live reporting brings everything home, from the terror attacks in Mumbai to murders and starvation deaths. If news channels were to be rated by the Entertainment Software Rating Board that rates films and games, they would be Rated ‘R’ (restricted under 17) for terror, violence, gore, and language.
Shefali Sapra’s son Nimaya, 11, stayed glued to the television following the serial bombings in Delhi in October. “I was supposed to go to GK-I market that day (where one of the blasts took place). He kept saying, ‘mom, you could have died’. After that, he was worried that someone he knew may have got hurt and sat glued to the television,” says Sapra, who avoided switching on the television during the Mumbai attacks when Nimaya and his sister Paravi (6) were home.
“It’s amazing that even parents who monitor their child’s exposure to violence and gore in films, television and video games give little thought to news channels. You have to discuss current events with a child in a language they understand and give context to the violence they see,” says Dr Shailja Sen, child psychologist with Sitaram Bhartia Institute, New Delhi.
Playing a violent game for hours has been shown to decrease school performance, increase aggression, raise obesity, induce epileptic seizures, and cause postural, muscular and skeletal disorders such as tendonitis, nerve compression, and carpal tunnel syndrome. Though these effects are not likely to occur in most children, parents need to be concerned about two things: the amount of time spent playing, and the content of the games.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children spend no more than one to two hours a day in front of all electronic screens, including TV, DVDs, video or computer games. This means an average of seven to 14 hours per week of screen time.
While not every child who plays an ultra violent game picks up a gun to go hunting black bucks, the real impact is subtle. “Violence in games and films fuels latent aggression by celebrating brutality and trivialising pain and makes children hostile, argumentative, and insensitive to pain,’’ says Dr Sen.
Keeping track of what they watch, helps. A study in the Journal of Adolescence reported that children whose parents limit the amount of television and gaming time and monitored content did better at school and got into fewer fights.
With gaming consoles such as Nintendo Wii positioning themselves as entertainment consoles for the entire family, video games are becoming less violent, but a child’s exposure to news has to be monitored.