Advising parents on children and media: Moving towards more evidence-based methods

boy tablet online media childrenMichael Rich, MD, MPH, director of the Center on Media and Child Health and Boston Children’s Hospital’s “Mediatrician,” authored an editorial in JAMA Pediatrics on the issues parents and physicians face in raising children growing up in a media-saturated world. The following is a synopsis of the editorial.

Research conducted in more than a dozen disciplines, collected for well over 50 years, provides a large and growing body of scientific evidence indicating that media exposure can influence leading causes of morbidity and mortality among children and adolescents (obesity, substance use, aggression and risk-taking behaviors, etc.). And considering that children now spend more time with media than they do with parents, teachers or any other influence, today’s parents and care providers need access to strong, evidence-based data when considering media that children use and the way that they use them.

Traditionally, pediatricians have advocated for children by voicing a concern about negative influences media can have on our younger population. But in the digital age—where screen technology provides so many immediate practical advantages for parents and teachers regularly tout the educational benefits of engaging children with screen media—broad recommendations against media use are no longer realistic or desirable. The time has come to shift the debate from what we think is right and wrong about children’s media use to parenting them based on what scientific research shows us about how children and their development are affected.

I urge my fellow pediatricians and child development professionals to move beyond advocating for restricting media to:

  • informing parents what works best for children’s health and development
  • balancing the message—used in focused and mindful ways, media can be positive for children’s health and development as part of a rich and diverse menu of experience; used mindlessly, media can have negative effects on physical, mental and social health
  • understanding how media affect children’s health varies with which media are used, how they’re used, and with whom they’re used

The medical community needs new, innovative methods for studying what media children and adolescents use, and the contexts and ways in which they use them. The current media environment is rapidly evolving, and to keep pace, our methods for studying and measuring its effect must evolve as well. To better understand media effects on health, we must approach the topic as we approach nutrition or injury prevention, with less biased research questions and a concerted effort to explore how media users are affected both positively and negatively, instead of focusing solely on harm.

By collecting and analyzing data to understand how to live with media, taking advantage of the good and avoiding the bad, we can use the results to offer families informed guidelines that are both realistic and practical in the modern media landscape. To do so, we must standardize our measures and accelerate the pace of research, ensuring that parents making risk-benefit decisions about current media devices and content have access to the latest information.

Finally, we must acknowledge and accept that parents and society will engage with this scientific evidence in a variety of ways. There are people who, based on the information we provide, will do everything in their power to minimize risk. Conversely, there will also always be those who choose short-term benefit over long-term risk.

Most parents fall somewhere between these two extremes and look to us for help. As child health professionals, we need to be aware of the latest, most accurate research on how media influence children—and translate that knowledge to parents in nonjudgmental ways—so they can recognize media’s positive and negative potentials and make informed decisions as they raise their digital natives.