Media moral panic about screens and teens

The results of the Common Sense Media survey this fall were reported widely in the news media. The major finding cited is that U.S. teens spend nine hours per day with media devices. Headlines declared: Teens spend nearly nine hours every day consuming media, Washington Post; Teens Spend an Average of 9 Hours a Day with Media, ABC; Teens spend an average of 9 hours a day with media, survey finds, Los Angeles Times.

Other outlets chose to quote from the Common Sense Media press release expressing surprise. CNN headlined: Teens spend a ‘mind-boggling’ 9 hours a day using media, report says. NBC stated that Teens Spend ‘Astounding’ Nine Hours a Day in Front of Screens. Digital Trends provided a more concrete illustration: Report: Teens now spend more hours consuming media than sleeping. CBS added a grain of mystery: Survey reveals surprising facts about kids’ online connections.

The well-executed and reliable Common Sense Media survey is by all accounts a respected and highly valuable documentation of cultural trends, such as use of media by tweens and teens. As an advocacy organization, Common Sense Media’s declared mission is to educate the public and provide resources for parents and educators in use of media in ways that benefit young people. The organization’s previous surveys were cited for years, not only in the media, but also in academic research. This study too promises to serve as a reference point in public debates about children and screen time.

Nevertheless, I cannot but wonder about the “surprise”, “mind-boggling” and “astounding” reaction presented in the news release and quoted by media to frame these findings.

Like most of my friends, colleagues, family members, and students, I probably spend just as much time – if not more – with media everyday than do teens: from waking up to the alarm on my mobile phone, spending good portions of my work day in front of a computer and on my smart phone, following our presidential candidates’ latest interviews on television, checking news about the events in Israel (my homeland) on the internet, Skyping with my grown children around North America, “face-timing” with my granddaughter in NY, and following the weather radar for tornado-alerts in the middle of the night on my tablet. I wonder what my score would have been had I been asked to complete that survey? And, how would the media frame the results had the survey solicited data from adults?

So what do we make of this mediated world of ours, for teens and adults alike? Research on this question finds that news coverage often focuses on the negative roles of media in young persons’ lives, such as:

  • The latest suicide of a victim of online bullying;
  • A mass-shooter who was an avid video-game player;
  • Concerns that early exposure to screen-based over-stimulation is related to growing rates of Attention Deficit Disorder and autism;
  • Pedophiles lurking on social media for young girls;
  • The connection between the amount of media consumption and childhood obesity;
  • Implications of bedtime screen-media use on sleep disturbance;
  • Declines in human interaction;
  • Irresponsible online behaviors such as sexting by impulsive teens.

The list is long, worrisome and attention-getting. Some concerns are based on anecdotal cases, projected fears or unconfirmed – or some say, yet-to-be-confirmed – research. Researchers refer to this phenomenon as media “moral panic.”

Media Moral Panic

Media moral panic is by no means a new phenomenon. From a historical perspective, ‘moral panic’ has accompanied the introduction of each new technology to our lives, from the printing press onward. This includes newspapers, movies, television, internet and ….soon, we suspect, augmented reality.

Interestingly, “moral panic” is accompanied by a contrasting “euphoric” sentiment of the new medium’s potential for human transformation and greater democratization of society. With time, neither sentiment has been proven to tip the scale of harms versus benefits.

Researchers and policy proponents who take the negative effects approach, often adopted uncritically by the media, share grounding in developmental psychology and the health professions, guided by the Hippocratic “do no harm” philosophy of medicine.

But there are alternative research and policy approaches that are more holistic, inclusive and evidence based, while still emphasizing responsibility for the wellbeing of children. They argue that there are both positive and negative effects of children’s use of omnipresent media. For example, a list of the wonderful opportunities that media provide young people includes educational enrichment, creativity, social experiences, activism, construction of identities – and just pure pleasure.

Around the world, many scholars of media and cultural studies, as well as sociology of childhood, produce fruitful research with evidence on the positive roles that media play in all aspects of children’s lives: from learning cognitive skills and second languages, to developing empathy and tolerance towards the “other”; from engaging in collaborative relationships with others in gaming platforms and forums, to finding support groups for dealing with sexual diversity, mourning, or romantic broken hearts; from being able to explore interests and hobbies to accessing endless possibilities for entertainment and information.

Toward a more balanced approach

Yet, apparently media producers have yet to find ways to frame them as exciting headlines, so most of the public knows a lot less about them, if at all. Journalists as well as editors do the media industry as well as children and parents a great disservice by not adopting a more balanced and integrative approach to reporting on and framing what media scholars have found about the effects and opportunities of media use.

Many parents today find it very challenging to navigate their children’s mediated lives and feel they are losing control of their ability to socialize them to their own family’s cultural values and life styles. These are real concerns, as are other parenting dilemmas in our highly technological and complicated world.

In my own writings and public presentations I emphasize the three Cs, as an easily understood approach consistent with the holistic research perspective: the Child – his/her gender, age, race, health, personality characteristics, interests; Content – what is the child consuming: is it valuable, is it age-appropriate, does it support your values and beliefs; and Context – the family, neighborhood, cultural, and national context in which the child is growing up.

When we consider the three Cs, we can easily realize that no “one solution fits all,” as different children, growing up in different environments and exposed to different media content, have different needs.

The advice for educators and parents we propose is reasonable: Familiarize yourself with your children’s media world; talk often to your children about their media use, about maintaining their privacy online and the footprint they leave behind; keep media out of children’s bedroom; and have clear rules about media use at home. This advice is important, but it is not enough.

Our children also need to develop media literacy, a set of skills and critical thinking abilities that allow us to access media responsibly. This means giving children the skills to evaluate media content, its relationship with reality and the social and cultural structures that are behind it. The ability to interact with it and actively participate in media creation is as important to all educational systems today as teaching basic reading/writing literacy was a hundred years ago.

It is the collaboration among all stakeholders concerned with children and young people – parents, educators, policy makers, media makers, advertisers, psychologists, pediatricians, social workers – actually, all of us – that will help facilitate our ability to guide our young generations on how to make the most out of their nine hours a day media experiences so they can maximize the media’s benefits and minimize their harms.

News media would do well to provide more balanced reporting on the roles and opportunities of media in our own, and our children’s lives.

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