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The Effects of Electronic Media on the Cognitive, Social, & Emotional Development of Children & Adolescents

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May 15-16, 2006

Workshop Summary

Michael Rich, Harvard University

Identifying Gaps and New Directions in Media Research

Among the conclusions reached by workshop participants was that clearly children and adolescents are the earliest adopters of media technology and are perhaps most vulnerable to it. Because television has become a dominant childhood activity, and because it is the most ubiquitous form of electronic media, parents, educators, and researchers must pay particular attention to the effects of media content on the developing child, with violence and advertising being of most immediate concern. New media forms and new uses for and combinations of existing media are constantly being devised. Different media are utilized in distinct patterns depending on user’s gender and age. The networked, interactive, multimedia world presents both opportunities, in the form of increased access to information and connectivity, and risks, in that young people are increasingly the main targets for both marketing of foods and other health-affecting products and entertainment that seeks their attention by exceeding that which has gone before.

Media in the home, school, and family

Child development and media use appears to be nested in a concentric ecological system, with the child at the center. The child is immediately surrounded by family, then by friends, school, and community, and finally by the larger world. This configuration places limitations on the technological fixes and recommendations rooted in just one of the systems that influence child development. Media must be studied and responded to within and across systems, over time, and in a variety of contexts. The “democratizing effect” of TV being easily available to all cuts both ways; it can be both helpful and harmful to its all users. Despite widespread discussion and research into the subject and many unfounded claims made by producers of “educational media”, there is in fact neither quality control nor quantifiable standards for educational media. Unfortunately, most parents feel comfortable with media, more so when it is labeled educational, and expose even infants with little concern. Form and content matter, and the scientific community has done a poor job communicating the importance of media influence to the general public.

Learning from media

Aspects of the educational value of media are still largely undefined. It is not clear, for instance, at what age the infant attains particular cognitive abilities with respect to learning from media. Cognitive stimulation vs. overload is an issue that must be elucidated and stratified by age, to determine both the immediate and the cumulative effects of media exposure. Some research supports the existence of a “video deficit” phenomenon in which young children can learn to imitate what they see on a screen, but it may take many more repetitions on screen than is required with a “real life” demonstration. Further research must be conducted in order to determine what types of media support learning, and how best to use interaction and contingency in the media-based educational product. More needs to be learned about the effect of media exposure on imagination, creativity and empathy, as well as how learning occurs and where in the brain different types of information are processed and stored. The mechanism of persistent unconscious fear must also be examined in light of the current historical trend of increased anxiety (1 standard deviation in 40 years) and the unprecedented prevalence of psychotropic medications currently being prescribed to children.

Attention and cognitive development

There have been mixed findings with respect to pacing vs. content of media and their effects on attention and cognition. To date, attention to media has been described in largely qualitative terms, such as the “traveling lens” phenomenon, and the familiarity to novelty reaction. Some observations have identified the salience of media content as a means of attracting the viewer’s attention, while others have described feature sampling as a response to background exposure. It has been shown that effective educational TV programs can be associated with better school performance. Special groups, such as autistic students and English as a Second Language (ESL) populations, have derived special benefits from media designed to address their specific learning needs. Age-specific educational effectiveness has been demonstrated when the educational media used is developmentally appropriate for the learners. The Flynn effect, an improvement in mean Intelligence Quotient (IQ) since the 1930s, has been theorized to be linked to the penetration of media into American homes and lifestyles. Above all, evidence indicates that content is critical to effective learning from media.

Interactive media

It has been observed that interactivity with media, such as TV characters asking viewers to respond with words or actions, increases attention. Action video games have been found to increase visual attention. Interactive media may have a “built-in traveling lens” demanding the user’s attention in directed ways. Interactivity provides a reward (and sometimes punishment) structure for learning, but is not as effective for visual or verbal learning as it appears to be for learning physical responses. Interactive media improves task-switching, but computers/video games provide limited contingency, so creative and prioritizing activities are not challenged. Of concern is a race-specific “digital divide” of familiarity and facility with such media.


There is an ongoing debate as to the definition and effects, neurological and otherwise, of “multitasking” Among media and/or between media and other tasks. When one attends to media while simultaneously performing other tasks, what is truly going on? Is the individual rapidly “toggling” their full attention or truly multitasking, by maintaining some level of attention to all activities and prioritizing attention as the activities or media demand? Different media, e.g., music versus visual presentations, work in different ways on different parts of the brain—does this affect multitasking capabilities? Another question is whether the tasks themselves suffer when one’s attention is not focused on a single task. Do finite cognitive resources limit the brain’s capacity to attend, absorb, and respond to multiple inputs? Does structural interference, the demand for specific resources to perform certain cognitive functions, affect multitasking? Does attentional interference, one media type or activity distracting from a second task, play a role? If true multitasking occurs, with multiple media inputs being perceived, attended, and responded to simultaneously, is a new medium being created by the individual, personalizing the experience?

Research must also distinguish between the effects of background versus foreground media: background media, which is usually adult fare, attracting children’s attention and distracting them from play and other more developmentally optimal tasks. Moreover, background media distracts the parent from awareness of the needs of the child and from interacting with the child. It has been observed that reading and memorization ability suffers when teenagers are multitasking, and that specific types of media, particularly dramas or lyrics in the user’s language, are more distracting than music or well-known videos that do not demand constant verbal or visual attention.

Media use recommendations

Both the research evidence and practical consideration of media use as a public health issue would suggest that the child development community reconsider the perspectives and phraseology of current media-related policy statements. At present, recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics are all prescriptively phrased “pediatricians should…” and take a restrictive or prohibitive stance, “…discourage use of screen media under the age of two years…not use television as an electronic babysitter.” It must be acknowledged that these assertive statements are, in fact, the results of risk-benefit analyses made by health professionals informed by incomplete data. More effective and useful recommendations could avoid prohibition or blame, acknowledging the limited evidence base and giving parents the tools to make individual, informed decisions instead of choosing between blindly following or rejecting recommendations that they may not understand or agree with. Child development experts and health professionals must be realistic and pragmatic about the nature of families and the parent-child interaction. They might be more successful to model media recommendations on those used to pursue other health goals, such as the avoidance of junk food or reduction of smoking. It is clear that pediatricians are failing to get either the information or effective strategies out to the general public.


Future research in the area of media effects on children and adolescents should move beyond the limitations of self-report to a more objective and reproducible measurement of media exposure. Media use should be studied in situ for ecological validity, requiring that researchers move beyond the home to the larger world. Because media are now highly portable, with cellular telephones functioning as mobile platforms for TV, music, and the Internet, research must be conducted anywhere and everywhere media are used. Measurement should include accurate duration of exposure, but also rigorous and comprehensive description of content, context and salience of media use. Research must be as agile and flexible as the media technologies it studies. Multiple measures, time-use diaries, momentary/experience sampling, and direct or video observation should be considered as research components; these methods can simultaneously provide context, content, and background versus foreground data.

Future directions

Future strategies for dispensing recommendations to parents should move beyond blame and shame, discard the good/bad values paradigm, and recognize the importance of media to our shared culture. It must be recognized that children and youth will continue to define themselves with their media diets. Historically, concern about media effects has gotten bogged down in a debate of values, a debate that will always result in stalemate. In order to move forward, the powerful presence of media in everyday life must be recognized and media should be approached as a potent environmental influence on child development and health. Learning for the 21st century and beyond must discard assumptions and preconceptions, focus on the public health implications of research findings, and build a consensus of understanding and response to media as a public health issue. Reducing the political charge by reframing the issue as a health concern may open up both public interest and funding opportunities for researchers.

Establish a coherent field

The first step in establishing a coherent field of study is to assess objectively what is known. Citing old and narrowly focused research narrows and limits the field. In an effort to vault the field to the next level, the Center on Media and Child Health (CMCH) has established a common library of what is known about media effects on health. Scientists and practitioners in this field using and contributing to the CMCH Database of Research ( External Web Site Policy) will be critical to establishing a timely and useful database for all. At least 13 academic disciplines have done media research. By bringing their methods and findings together and establishing common language and methods, it is possible to achieve a more complete and holistic view of the quantity, quality, and context of what we know about media effects. The CMCH Database of Research features free access for both academics and consumers and uses standardized abstracts, a natural language search engine, and lay language synopses. Once nomenclature, methods, and variables are standardized, the research community must work to define learning, establish protocols, pursue multicenter studies, and move from multidisciplinary to interdisciplinary efforts. Breaking out of academic “silos,” active, truly interdisciplinary collaboration will increase the rigor of the research and the generalizability of its results.

Evolve methodology

Evolving methodology in media studies will require methods that are responsive to actual media use. Multiple methods can “triangulate” on findings, and these methods must be flexible enough to follow evolving media. Such research may find user-generated websites or user blogs to be valuable for self-assessment studies. Media-savvy methods can also increase the speed of research “turnaround” so that findings can be applied in timely ways. The key will be to follow the data: find what is there and facilitate the development of translational research, bringing information from the laboratory to the family room.

What do we need to investigate?

Media studies possess a wide scope. Research must focus first on the physical, mental, and social health outcomes of greatest interest: overweight; learning (especially early childhood); attention and school function; anxiety; connectedness; empathy; creativity and imagination; and behavior, including violence, substance use, sexual activity, body image, and risk-taking. To increase understanding, researchers must move beyond cross-sectional studies and toward more prospective longitudinal studies, à la the Framingham Heart Study. Moving from theory to laboratory to applied research is also important.

For the vulnerable birth to age two years group, the community must strive to optimize gain and minimize risk of media exposure. Informed by the descriptive research, graduated media use for different needs and demands at different developmental stages must be examined and developed. The effects of pervasive background media, the rise of multitasking, the effects and utility of interactive media must be elucidated. Media literacy and reduction techniques must be explored as potential interventions on negative effects of media exposure. Media benefits and risks must be specifically considered for sub-groups such as extremely heavy media users, individuals with function-limiting physical or cognitive disabilities, autism, attentional problems, and those for whom English is a second language. Neurobiological correlates to observed behavioral responses can be identified, not only for their intrinsic research value but to also help to reframe media exposure as health issue. The role of the senses and limbic system must be explored. Finally, researchers must evaluate interventions by pediatricians and teachers, provide strategies for parents, and take advantage of a window of opportunity for resetting attitudes and expectations.

What do we do with the findings?

Future findings will assist in developing and evaluating positive uses for media rather than solely negative recommendations. Positive messages are more motivating and may lead to improved applications of media, and better public education. The research community must address the artificial education/entertainment dichotomy, make evidence-based, feasible recommendations, use data to face the status quo, and “call it as we see it.” Funding opportunities include the Children and Media Research Advancement (CAMRA) bill, the National Children’s Study, and the media industry itself. It will be essential to make do with what is available, collaborate to leverage resources, and create a nidus around which people and research can come together to develop new perspectives and strategies for raising healthy and smart children in the Media Age.

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Last Reviewed: 11/30/2012
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