Kids and Media: Learning Happens

Kimberly M. Thompson, ScD


June 10, 2005

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Nearly 6 and a half hours per day. That's the amount of time that American 8- to 18-year-olds spend consuming entertainment media.[1] Why should physicians and parents care about this? My rigorous peer-reviewed research on movies showed violence in every G-rated animated feature film[2] and characters smoking tobacco and/or consuming alcohol in nearly 60% of these films.[3] We also showed that "ratings creep" occurred over the last decade, such that today's movies contain significantly more violence, sexual content, and profanity on average than movies of the same age-based rating a decade ago.[4] With respect to video games, which are rated by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (or ESRB) our studies showed 64% of games rated E (for "Everyone" ages 6 and up) contained violence, with rewards or requirements for injuring characters in order to advance in 60%.[5] Our study of video games rated T (for "Teen," ages 13 and up) showed that 98% of the games involved intentional violence, with the game player killing virtual human characters at an average rate of 1 human death per minute of game playtime.[6] We also found content that could warrant an ESRB content descriptor in 48% of T-rated games for which the ESRB had not assigned a content descriptor.[7] What is the impact of all of the messages that kids experience in media with respect to their perceptions, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors? Some studies suggest the impacts include desensitization, misperception of the risks of violence, risky sexual behaviors, substance abuse, and real, adverse physical and mental health outcomes.[8] Our self-regulatory system gives us all the freedom to choose and to create the media that we consume, and it reflects values deeply held by all Americans. However, freedom depends on responsibility in every context. Thus, we need to take a hard look at media content and diets,[9] recognize that learning happens and has consequences, which may be adverse. We should collectively work to improve the information provided to parents about media so that they truly make informed choices. That's my opinion. I'm Dr. Kimberly Thompson, Associate Professor and Director of the Kids Risk Project at the Harvard School of Public Health.


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