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Mythbusters: Children and the Digital World

By — Digital World Parenting Special Edition Contributor
Updated on May 17, 2010

A recent Future of Children volume explored the issue of children and electronic media. While many of the findings were predictable, there were some surprises that challenge commonly held assumptions.

MYTH: Television is being displaced by newer forms of media.

Despite all the new technologies, children still spend a lot of time in front of the television; watching TV programs, videos, and movies on the television accounts for more than half of all young people's electronic media exposure. Rather than newer technologies replacing television, children simply add these other media on to the time they spend watching TV. Television is a central part of the multitasking phenomenon, in which children use several media formats simultaneously.

MYTH: Children from wealthy, highly educated families engage in the least media use, while children in poorer, less educated families engage in the most.

A recent survey of eight to eighteen year olds found no relationship between household income and media exposure. Rather, differences emerged based on the education level of the parents - and in an unusual pattern. 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. Because the share of youngsters within each parental education category who used each of the media on any given day did not differ, it appears that although all young people watch screen media, those from low- and high-education subgroups watch for longer periods on any given day.

MYTH: Marketing to children can never have positive outcomes.

While advertising is often used to steer children and youth toward unhealthy behaviors, marketing can also be used effectively to promote healthy choices such as not smoking or using illicit drugs, reducing obesity, and delaying sexual activity. Researchers, for example, showed that from 1999 to 2002, youth smoking prevalence declines from 25.3 percent to 18 percent and that the American Legacy Foundation's truth campaign accounted for approximately 22 percent of that decline. Similarly, the California Adolescent Nutrition and Fitness (CANFit) program found that after its 1% or Less campaign in East Los Angeles, whole milk purchase dropped by 66 percent to 24 percent of overall sales and that the share of low-fat mils sold had more than doubled. Finally, 2004 survey respondents who reported exposure to one or more components of the KNOW HIV/AIDS campaign said that the campaign had influenced their plans for the future, including visiting a doctor or getting tested for HIV and that these respondents were more likely than respondents who were not aware of the campaign components to indicate that they planned to engage in these healthier behaviors.

MYTH: Video games have no educational value.

While research has suggested that violent video games can promote aggressive behavior, 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. As with other media, it is the content of the game rather than the platform that matters in assessing the potential impact on children.

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