When it comes to child development, a healthy life includes not only what’s for dinner but what’s on the screen, according to Dr. Michael Rich.
While speaking to a group of pediatricians from across the state at the Grove Park Inn for the 2013 annual meeting of the North Carolina Pediatric Society, Rich says, “What we feed a child’s mind is as important as what we feed a child’s body.”
Considered the world’s first “mediatrician,” Rich serves as the director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston, Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health, a center that studies the positive and negative effects of media on children.
He clicks to the next slide of his keynote presentation, which displays an image of cellphones, computers and televisions floating around a young girl’s head. This illustration environment, he says, is the reality of the media-centric and hyper-connected world we live in today for both adults and children — for better or for worse.
“It’s like the air they breathe and the water they drink,” he says of the current media environment. “Does it help or does it hurt?”
Speaking to Xpress before his presentation last weekend, Rich explains that the effects of media on children can be either nourishing or noxious. However, he stresses that it’s up to parents and pediatricians to have a conversation about what it means for a child to be a healthy media consumer, whether a child is 12 months old or 12 years old.
“Media are here to stay. The Luddite approach of ‘turn it off, throw it out the window’ is not going to work. Secondly, media are shared cultural experience and we need that — that’s how we connect and communicate with each other,” he says. “But we also have to be aware that there are pitfalls, and that physical, mental and social health and children’s development can be influenced, sometimes very powerfully, by the media they use and the way they use the media.”
During his presentation, Rich showed a video of an experiment conducted by the Center on Media and Child Health. As parents watched their preschool children behind a two-way mirror, one class watched an episode of Barney while another watched an episode of PowerRangers. After the program, the class that watched Barney played and shared with maracas. The group that watched PowerRangers, however, used the musical instruments as weapons.
Rich says it’s important to remember just how malleable a child’s brain is at a young age. In fact, it’s one of the reasons why he advocates for parents to think of media as tools, not as what Rich calls “electronic babysitters.”
“One of the things that we know for example about very young children, infants and toddlers, is that brain architecture responds to the stimulus it gets,” he explains. Rich points to what he says are the three most positive influences on a young brain: face-to-face interaction with other human beings, manipulating their physical world (by stacking blocks, for example) and open-ended free play.
As for educational apps, games and videos, Rich says there’s no scientific evidence to show that any of them actually teach kids, citing a study that revealed that children who watched the popular Baby Einstein videos actually had more language delays than children who did not.
“Unfortunately what I think has happened is these infant DVDs and infant apps are ways for parents to not feel so guilty for using it as an electronic babysitter. It’s better than having them watch a Schwarzenegger film, but, in a way, what they’re doing is they’re substituting a less rich brain stimulation environment for a richer one called the world itself,” Rich says.
However, media can also harm children in another way.
“We’re seeing first- and second-grade girls worried about their weight and at least talking about it. This is in part a factor of as kids get more wired, as they get more hooked in, marketers are seeing them as an expanding market. Not only that, but marketers of products they’re not even yet using are going to want to build brand loyalty,” Rich says.
Medical Director at Mission Children’s Hospital Dr. Susan Mims says that she encourages local parents to use the media as a learning opportunity not only about the issues that may arise in TV shows, but about the media itself.
“I taught my kids to play a game early on, it was called ‘Look for the Product Placement.’ It’s so funny because they still do it today,” she says.
She continues, “To have a discussion about that and find things like that, then they can begin to learn as they develop and grow. They can learn that what’s depicted is really not reality and, actually, it can be used to manipulate.”
Though parents must be the ones to enforce media limits and consumption, Rich urges pediatricians to start the conversation during routine wellness visits.
“We are not only obligated to diagnose the issues we see in front of us, but we also do something called anticipatory guidance, which is what’s going to happen in the next year or period of time developmentally before I see this child again,” he says. “Kids use media for more time than they do anything else except sleep. They are in that environment more time than they are in school or with parents. We need to encapsulate that time in our parenting. We can’t just check out.”
— Caitlin Byrd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 251-1333, ext. 140.