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Affects of Entertainment Media on Children
For over 40 years, parents, researchers, and policy makers have raised concerns about the impact of children's exposure to media content (Kotler and Calvert). There are a wide range of attitudes and beliefs evident in society about the effects of media exposure on children. Not only do the media provide substantial amounts of information to the public but it is influential in controlling the direction of society. Children of different ages watch and understand the media in different ways. In fact, it was concluded in a recent study that "Children, ages 8 to 18, spend more time (44.5 hours per week- 61/2 hours daily) in front of computer, television, and game screens than any other activity in their lives except sleeping "(Kaiser). Astonishingly, "54% of children have a TV in their bedroom and 44% of children say they watch something different when they're alone than with their parents" (Media Wise). A child's interpretation of what they watch depends on the length of their attention spans, the ways in which they process the information, and their own limited life experiences. Entertainment media exposure can negatively affect attitudes and behaviors of the American child through stereotyping, violence, and cultivating false perceptions of reality.
The media manipulates the minds of children by reinforcing negative stereotypes and idealized body images to be accepted as the norm. Stereotypes are inevitable in the media, especially in entertainment television, movies, and video games. Stereotyped characters can negatively influence the way children view real people in society. More often than not, television tends to stereotype genders and racial groups, in a negative way. For example, "There have been many instances of racism identified in Disney movies including The Jungle Book which portrays gorillas and orangutans that sound like black people and Oliver and Company, with a Chihuahua named Alonzo that is typecast as a Latino troublemaker. At one point in the film, he talks about stealing cars. This negative stereotype is what children may remember when they hear someone speak with a similar accent. Lady and the Tramp features the Siamese cats that negatively portray Asians. They clearly have stereotypical Asian features such as slanted eyes, buckteeth and very heavy accents and are depicted as sinister, cunning and manipulative" (Brunette, Mallory, and Wood). Children who watch large amounts of television begin to view these people negatively in real life. They base their opinions on how they see these groups on television. The media also creates racial stereotypes by displaying minorities as subordinate to what the media considers the majority. Prolonged exposure to stereotypes can lead to the development of social prejudice and feelings of inequality in children (Media).
Researchers have also suggested that media may influence the development of negative self-esteem in children through messages about body image. Girls in early adolescence are particularly vulnerable to messages dictated by the media about what is considered attractive, as they are sensitive about their body image and whether they measure up to their peers. Recent research indicates that there is a marked link between TV watching, and negative body and eating disorders (Media Wise). Rumble, Cash, and Nashville found that "the symbolic association of attractiveness and thinness with goodness was present in over 100 female characters appearing in 23 Walt Disney animated films produced over a 60-year period"(Brunette, Mallory ,and Wood). Unfortunately, most of the media children are exposed to do not show people in a realistic way. Characters on TV are often shown with unrealistic perfect bodies.This image is not realistic or even attractive to some, yet the desires to imitate what children see remains prominent. Not only do the media glorify a slender ideal, they also emphasize its importance, and the importance of appearances in general. "Eating disorders are so common in models that it seems to get glamorized to young girls. This is a dangerous thing to want to imitate. "15% of young women have some kind of disordered eating patterns" (Suite101). Children should be taught beauty comes in all shapes, sizes and colors and it is extremely damaging to have constant exposure from the media telling kids otherwise. "If you have a child who you know is attractive and yet you overhear them say they're ugly, you know something has gone wrong" (Suite101). Girls and teenagers are self conscious enough about their body image without being ambushed with air brushed perfection which sometimes borders on looking cartoon like with their lack of blemishes and freckles. Even if adolescents know that what they see is not normal or not real, it can still have a significant impact on their self-esteem and nutritional health Prolonged exposure to surreal body images can lead to periods of depression, low self-esteem or even eating disorders that may become permanent if not noticed over time.
There are continued concerns researchers are finding exposure to media violence causes increased levels of aggression and violence in children. Experts even suggest that the evidence linking media violence to aggressive behavior is stronger than the evidence linking smoking to lung cancer (Gentile). In the United States an average of 20-25 violent acts are shown in children's television programs each hour (Media Wise). Violence (homicide, suicide, and trauma) is the leading cause of death for children, adolescents and young adults, more prevalent than disease, cancer or congenital disorders (Youth Violence Facts at a Glance 2). In fact, six prominent medical groups (American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, American Psychological Association, American Medical Association, American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Psychiatric Association) warn of these effects of media violence on children: Children will increase anti-social and aggressive behavior, become less sensitive to violence and those who suffer from violence, children may view the world as violent and mean, become more fearful of being a victim of violence, children may desire to see more violence in entertainment and real life, and children will view violence as an acceptable way to settle conflicts (National Institute on Media and the Family). While most adults realize that media violence is fabricated, children are more vulnerable. Preschoolers cannot distinguish the difference between reality and fantasy. Children who identify with aggressive heroes are more likely to be more aggressive. They learn that violence is effective, courageous, socially acceptable and rewarded, and they get caught in the aggression cycle. Aggressive children prefer aggressive programming (Medscape). These aggressive acts lead to a heightened arousal of the viewer's aggressive tendencies, bringing feelings, thoughts and memories to consciousness and can cause outwardly aggressive behavior (Medscape).
Cultivation theory can have a negative affect in influencing children's ideals about the real world. Cultivation theory in its most basic form, suggests that exposure to television, over time, gradually" cultivates" viewers' perceptions of reality. Heavy watching of television is seen as "cultivating" attitudes which are more consistent with the world of television programs than with the everyday world. The ideas presented to a passive audience, such as children, are often accepted and therefore influence large groups into conforming behind the ideas, giving the media a significant influence over children audiences (Cultivation Theory and Media Effects). Children are seen as very vulnerable and easily manipulated therefore they are more prone to the effects of cultivation theory. Television's stories provide a dominant or "mainstream" set of cultural beliefs, values, and practices. "Heavy viewing may thus override differences in perspectives and behavior that ordinarily stem from other factors and influences" (Cultivation Theory and Media Effects). Many children, especially those at young ages, do not have the opportunity to experience the world for themselves and often, by the time that they do, the expectations and assumptions created by media are so strong that it can take time to disentangle reality from perception. According to one finding of research, "When children are exposed to heavy media violence, they seem to have an attitudinal misconception called "mean world syndrome". This means that they overestimate how much violence actually occurs in their communities and the rest of the world. People who are exposed to less media violence have a more realistic sense of the amount of violence in the real world" (Suite101). In essence, cultivation theory correlates a relationship between heavy exposures of children to media with an influencing of what they believe to be real. Heavy viewing can influence beliefs about stereotypes, violence, body image and values. "Cultivation analysis concentrates on the enduring and common consequences of growing up and living with television: the cultivation of stable, resistant, and widely shared assumptions, images, and conceptions that reflect the underlying dimensions, institutional characteristics, and interests of children themselves"( Cultivation Theory and Media Effects).
In addition parents are especially concerned with how media exposure and content may influence the healthy development of their children. Media exposure has been linked to multiple problems in children such as: childhood obesity, substance use and abuse, sexual behavior, and low academic achievement. Media has become increasingly persuasive in the lives of children and adolescents. For example, "Teenagers see an average of 14,000 sexual references and innuendos per year on television with only 150 of these dealing with sexual responsibility, abstinence, or contraception"
(Dorman). Children determine their identity in relation to the media. Their favorite television shows, favorite band, favorite book, all are determined by the media to some extent. Ideally, adults learn the skills to recognize and understand the effects of media on their lives and learn to control and to resist the temptations. Unfortunately most children have not learned the necessary skills to assist them in filtering what is fantasy from reality. All media messages are created with a purpose, that the media shapes ones understanding of the world, that each person or child interprets media uniquely and that mass media is driven by power and money.
Obviously, consuming media has seemed to replace reading storybooks or playing dress-up as the average American child's favorite pastime. Clearly, media is a powerful tool that can alter a child's ideas about the world. The media can control and even dictate how children in our society view themselves, view others and what role they will choose in handling situations of prejudice, violence and fantasy. As stated in a poem by Dorothy Law Nolte, "Children learn what they live." Although the media is not held accountable for its choices in programming, the public has a choice to choose which programs they will promote and allow their children to view. Even though technology has made media assessable just about everywhere just because children are growing up in a world run by media does not mean they have to become one of the media's statistics.