ROLE MODELS: You are what you watch
By KATIE WARD , The Olean Times Herald
November 28, 2005
It is estimated by the National Institute on
Media and the Family that the average
American child between the ages of 2 and 18
spends 38 hours every week in front of a
screen. That’s more than a day and a half.
That’s up from 23 hours per week in 1992.
There’s no denying that electronic media has
found new ways into kids’ lives and left
some parents in awe, as the kids watch
television shows on cell phones and Instant
Message acquaintances in other states and
countries without the cost of a
long-distance phone call.
Despite constant emerging technology and a
ton of new television channels, said Blois
Olson, spokesperson for the National
Institute on Media and the Family, it is a
parent’s duty to be on the up-and-up as to
what media his or her child ingests.
“Parents know what their kids should watch,”
said Mr. Olson. “Everyone has a role to
play, and first and foremost, parents need
the tools and the understanding of the
impact of media. They need to watch not just
the content, but watch how much (their
children) watch. Not just TV, but also video
games and the Internet have led to a more
Mr. Olson said that video game addiction is
becoming a real problem, especially among
teenage boys and young men. Video game
addiction can show the same effects as
gambling and drug and alcohol dependence —
including job loss, family problems and
According to Fred Welch, computer technology
teacher at Olean Middle, there’s also a
worrisome emerging trend of parents who give
children the reigns at the family computer
simply because the kids are more familiar
with the technology.
“(Kids are) the experts of the house, it’s
not the parents, and that’s a dangerous
thing,” said Mr. Welch. “There’s a sense of
security when there isn’t necessarily
security — that feeling that they’re safe in
their home on their computer when they’re
A round-table discussion with six students
in the OASIS 21 after-school program at
Olean Middle School showed young adolescents
keenly aware of both benefits and pitfalls
of the media’s influence in their lives.
They discussed how constant news updates led
many people to safety during hurricanes
Katrina and Rita, how interactive video
games can improve hand-eye coordination, and
how the Global Positioning System can offer
precise location information for a person
anywhere in the world.
Riley Branch, a 12-year-old seventh grader,
said one of the biggest benefits of computer
technology for her is that she’s able to
communicate real-time with friends who live
“I have a friend in South Carolina and I can
talk to them right there,” she said. In
addition, if both computers have the
capability, friends can actually talk live
But there are risks that go along with
having your friends at your fingertips, said
12 year-old seventh-grader Chris Coleman.
Mainly, you can’t be sure whether or not
they are your friends, he said.
“A lot of people can act like someone else,”
The students shared stories about times they
thought they were talking to people they
knew, but those people ended up being total
strangers, sometimes far older than the kids
had believed. They said they’ve learned it’s
not a smart idea to give out phone numbers,
addresses and other personal information
over the Internet.
The students agreed that while it isn’t
difficult for them to differentiate between
Hollywood and real life, media mentality
sneaks into their lives in ways they
sometimes don’t notice.
“You don’t really know what’s fake and
what’s real,” said Jessica Richardson, a
sixth grader who’s 11 years old.
Samantha Peters, a 13-year-old seventh
grader, said it’s especially tough for young
girls who are overloaded with images of
thin, perfect bodies on television and Web
sites and in magazines. This bombardment
contributes to poor self-image and puts
girls at risk for anorexia and bulimia.
“It’s telling teens to be this small or look
this way,” she said. “On MTV, that’s all you
see is skin and people making out.”
“It’s all about the male teenage
population,” said Riley.
Though programming full of scantily clad
females and other sexual content may not be
an appropriate reflection of reality,
students said, it’s hard not to watch it
because it’s everywhere.
According to Mr. Olson, kids’ minds do
absorb the increase in sexual content, and
again, parents must be present to help their
children define a set of values amid
“There’s no doubt that the increased
presence of sex images and attitudes in our
environment has had an effect on children
and their views on sex. Parents need to pay
attention to what their children are
watching and doing so that they know what
the warning signs are,” he said.
And it’s not only sex but violence that has
become commonplace in television and video
games that kids see every day. The “Grand
Theft Auto” series, in particular, is one of
the most violent games on the market and has
also become the best-selling game of all
time. Games like Grand Theft Auto receive an
M rating for “mature” by the Entertainment
Software Rating Board, which means the
material may be appropriate for those 17 and
“The overwhelming majority of kids under 18
have played M-rated games,” said Mr. Olson.
“Especially in video games, we believe that
there needs to be an independent rating
The National Institute on Media and the
Family does offer a rating system, KidScore,
that can be utilized and contributed to by
any parent. It informs adults how much
questionable content can be found in video
games, movies and television shows.
Two of the six students from Olean Middle
School have played, and one owns, Grand
Theft Auto — and they both love it.
“It’s the best game,” said Chris, whose
older brother owns it and lets him play.
Garrett Putt, a 12-year-old sixth grader who
owns the game, said he enjoys playing
“because it’s fake and fun. You can shoot
cops and run them over.”
If families are looking for less violent
alternatives to M-rated games, said Mr.
Blois, items such as “EA Sports” games and
“The Sims” lack the blood and weapons. But
he warned that too much of any video game
can hinder normal brain development so
parents should make sure to limit playing
(and television and computer) time to one to
two hours per day.
“The brain is a growing, living, developing
organ, especially in boys 13 to 21,” he
said. “When screen time becomes more than
one to two hours a day, the cerebral cortex
of the brain is not developing as quickly."
“Certain parts of an individual’s ability to
make judgment or have the self-discipline to
make right decisions have been impaired or
delayed,” he continued. “Right and wrong are
being influenced by the context of the
Samantha and Jessica discussed news stories
of children who carried out violent acts
because on television the same actions had
no consequences attached. But like the
deadly 1999 student shootings at Columbine
High School in Colorado, real-life
consequences do exist and can turn tragic.
“(Kids) see it on TV and they say, ‘Well,
it’s not going to harm people,’ then they do
it — and there’s no second chances,” said
Samantha. “You can’t bring them back.”
Alex Whipple, a 12-year-old sixth grader,
said his parents don’t allow him to watch
violent programming such as “COPS” and
“Spike TV,” and said he would probably make
the same rules for his children if he were a
Four of the six students had television sets
in their bedrooms, and screen times for the
kids ranged from one hour and a half per
week to eight or more hours a day on
weekends. All these children agreed that if
they were parents, they would set limits on
what and how much their children could
Chris said, “You have to be responsible for
what your child watches.”
Riley said she might not let her children
watch television for the first few years of
their lives so they wouldn’t find as much of
a need for it growing up.
Garretts’ young children would be limited to
“nothing but cartoons and what you and I
know is fake.” Jessica suggested SpongeBob
SquarePants and Samantha said the Disney
Channel and ABC family were acceptable
A show with sexual content, they wouldn’t
let them watch.
Mr. Blois and Mr. Welch offered some tips
for safer, healthier use of media at home.
“Try to turn off the TV during dinnertime
and have a family conversation,” said Mr.
Blois. He also suggested keeping television
sets in family areas.
“A large percentage of kids have TVs in
their bedrooms. It can act as an antisocial
magnet,” he said.
Mr. Welch said the same should go for
computer use, and adult computer owners
should learn how use filters to protect
against viruses, spyware and adware.
“Limit where the kids are getting online.
Make sure they’re not stuck away in some
room somewhere,” he said. “One of the major
issues is that the parents aren’t aware of
the things they should do to their computers
to keep them safe at home.”
Mr. Blois said media producers do have a
responsibility to consumers to truthfully
represent the content of their programming.
“We expect that media companies and
producers will be honest in rating
materials,” he said.
In regards to video games, he said, “Many of
the most popular games are just young males
acting out fantasies. There’s been an effort
to develop more games for young women.”
“I think the media needs to be more
responsible” in terms of the marketing to
which kids are exposed, said Mr. Welch.
“Fads get spread a lot quicker because they
are bombarded through the Internet with a
commercial environment. There’s a lot of
pressure out there for them to fit in anyway
at this age.”
Plagiarism is one issue that the OASIS 21
students didn’t mention. Mr. Welch said
plagiarism a growing problem that is now
harder for kids to grasp because such a
wealth of information, both factual and
false, is available at the click of a mouse.
“It’s a struggle to have them properly cite
the material they’ve used,” Mr. Welch said.
“What happens is that they are willing to go
out there and get something on the computer
and take that as truth, and they’re not
critically taking a look at what it is. They
can go grab pieces of information and put
them into something that looks pretty good,
but there’s a danger that they maybe haven’t
even read what they’re using.”