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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 sedentary lifestyle.”

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 declining health.

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 not.”

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 far away.

“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 over microphones.

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,” he said.

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 conflicting ideas.

“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 older.

“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 system.”

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 program.”

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 father.

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 watch.

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 options.

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.”

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