As a high school teacher for 30 years, I witnessed how my students’ attention and learning was impacted positively and negatively by advances in digital technology. Now, as a grandmother, I find myself wanting to learn more about media’s effect on youth. My concern led me to attend a Digital Literacy Conference covering the Media, Critical Thinking and Wellness. In Ames, Iowa on November 10th, some of the world’s brightest minds were brought together to educate over 160 participants, many who were law enforcement, educators or other professionals who work with youth.
The experts who spoke identified the media, the entire digital environment, accessed by our children without supervision, as one of the most powerful contributors to high-risk behavior in children. I know, it sounds scary. We all recognize the positives of digital technology-cell phones, computers, the internet, video games, social media, etc. This conference addressed the power of digital technology, how it affects the quality of life, and what adults can do about it. Due to the volume of information shared at this conference, I will present it in three parts.
Media and Aggression
The first speaker was Dr. Douglas Gentile, PhD, Professor of developmental psychology at Iowa State University. According to Dr. Gentile, the science has clearly proven since 1972 the powerful effect of media on human thought and behavior. In his own research, he found that if kids watch pro-social TV shows (like Sesame Street) or play pro-social games (like Animal Crossing), they gain in empathy and demonstrate increased helpful behavior. In contrast, if children watch TV shows such as Batman or play violent video games (like Grand Theft Auto) in which a hero is practicing intentional harm where aggression is rewarded, they become desensitized, less helpful and more aggressive.
He showed video of one of his studies in which one group of boys just finished a game of soccer and another group just finished playing a video war game. During the interview with each individual boy the professor “accidentally” knocked down a container of pens. Most of the boys who just finished playing soccer immediately started to pick up the pens. In contrast, few of the boys who just finished playing the video war game made any effort to help pick up the pens.
Media on the Developing Brain
Dr. Gentile also explained that kids do not have the advanced cognitive ability to understand details of plot. In a child’s mind Batman is good, Batman hits, therefore good guys hit others.
Research has proven that the amount of time playing violent video games has a direct effect on a child’s grades. Humans must train their brain to focus. The fast pace of media leads to attention problems. The compulsion to check one’s phone leads a person from one distraction to the next. Each distraction is an impediment to storing information in long term memory, thereby undermining a child’s ability to learn.
Research has also shown that violence in media causes kids to see hostility in common acts. His example was a young person, after being bumped in the hallway, assumes it was on purpose. The bottom line is that exposure to violence in media and digital technology in general changes the way a child thinks and the way he or she behaves.
The second speaker was Tyler Oesterle, M.D., M.P.H., of the Department of Psychiatry and Psychology at Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. He explained how the brain develops and stressed that judgment and restraint come later in brain growth. Therefore, children are more susceptible to the powerful effect of the media. Dr. Oesterle described his work with adolescents and media’s strong influence on adolescent substance abuse and addiction in general.
The bottom line is we have a responsibility as parents to monitor and understand the screens our children are using. It can be overwhelming, but we need to give our children technology training wheels before we let them loose to experience all the internet has to offer on their own.
More details from this conference will be shared in Princesses and Superheroes, Gender stereotyping? – Part II of Cyber Wellness.
About the Author!
Julie Brannaman, M.A., Retired High School Spanish Teacher. Julie taught high school Spanish for 30 years and served as World Language Department Head for 20 years. Julie is now the proud grandmother of her two grandchildren who reside in Omaha.
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