Today’s USA Today features a debate between the editors and me on the question of the impact media has on children and what should be done about it. Their editorial argues that “Today’s mass media penetrate deeply and quietly, inflicting real damage on young children, an increasing body of research shows.” Specifically, they are referring to a new study commissioned by Common Sense Media (CSM), which claims that a review of 173 studies shows “that a strong correlation exists between greater exposure and adverse health outcomes.”
In my response entitled “Don’t Scapegoat Media,” which appears in its entirety down below the fold, I argue that “Media have long been a convenient scapegoat for the woes of the world,” and that we must be careful not to assume correlation equals causation when surveying the impact of media on kids. After all, I argue, “how do [those studies] account for the other variables that influence youth development, including broken homes, bad parents, socioeconomic status, troubled peer relations, poor schools and so on? And how is media exposure weighted relative to these other influences? Is a beer ad really as much of a negative influence as an alcoholic parent?” Again, read my entire response below. [Of course, even if one assumes some media has an impact on some kids, there are plenty of ways for parents and guardians to take control over the media in their lives, as I have shown in my big book on the subject.]
I was also quoted in this Washington Post article about the new CSM study on Tuesday.
Don’t Scapegoat Media
by Adam Thierer
Media have long been a convenient scapegoat for the woes of the world. In particular, fears about the influence media might have on our children have often prompted calls for “crackdowns” on speech and expression.
Typically, these fears fade as one generation’s media boogeyman becomes another’s treasured art form. That’s not to say media don’t have an impact on some children. Clearly, media are among many factors that influence culture and behavior.
But what about those other influences? Some studies summarized in the new Common Sense Media (CSM) report suggest a potential link between media exposure and certain social pathologies. But how do they account for the other variables that influence youth development, including broken homes, bad parents, socioeconomic status, troubled peer relations, poor schools and so on? And how is media exposure weighted relative to these other influences? Is a beer ad really as much of a negative influence as an alcoholic parent?
That’s why it’s important to recall a fundamental tenet of all social sciences: Correlation does not necessarily equal causation. Human behavior is complicated and quite difficult to measure “scientifically.” Just defining “media exposure” and “negative health outcomes” is tricky enough; identifying root causes is even more challenging.
The sky hasn’t fallen the way some media critics feared. While childhood obesity is a growing problem, it’s important not to lose sight of the impressive gains we’ve made in other areas, such as falling juvenile violence, teen pregnancy, and youth drug and alcohol abuse. Moreover, even if some media negatively influence some children, that must be balanced against the many ways media inspire and empower.
The authors of the CSM survey are to be commended, however, for avoiding regulatory recommendations and instead focusing on the sensible steps parents, schools, industry and government can take to educate kids and empower families to take control over the media in their lives. More information, increased media options and better mentoring of our children are the prudent approaches.