A digital upbringing

It seems positively quaint to care about the amount of time kids spend watching TV. These days, a television is often mere audiovisual wallpaper for a teen or preteen who is texting on his cell phone while listening to music on earphones and, on the computer, checking out an online video (oops, he sees you! quick screen change to homework).

What impact is this full multimedia immersion having on a generation of kids? For all the social and educational benefits of digital devices, studies also have linked texting and the state of being constantly wired to bad educational and health outcomes. But no one’s really quantified this exposure, or the degree of media multitasking – until now.

In a study called Measuring Youth Media Exposure (MYME), researchers from the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston are seeking a more sensitive, comprehensive measurement. They enrolled 126 middle-school kids in Manchester, New Hampshire, recorded their heights, weights, and a broad range of health information, and gave them four tools for recording their media use: a hi-def camcorder, a personal digital assistant (PDA), a time-use diary and a retrospective questionnaire.

Responding to random beeps throughout the day, the students completed onscreen questionnaires about what they were just doing and how they were feeling. They then used the camcorder to record a 360-degree pan of their surroundings — like this one:

Twice a week (a weekday and a Saturday), they filled out an activity diary, recording what they were doing over the 24 hours in 15-minute increments. One year later, the participants repeated the entire process.

The researchers hope to follow these youth every year, comparing their media use to numerous health behaviors and outcomes. In the meantime, they’re now analyzing the one-year follow-up data. “What we feed our minds is as important as what we feed our bodies,” says Michael Rich, MD, MPH, director of the Center.  “The effects of our media use on physical, social, and mental health outcomes are probably incremental and cumulative. Our goal is to get the information out there, so we can make informed choices for our children and ourselves.”

Rich expects MYME to evolve into a kind of Framingham Heart Study, tracking a variety of health measures and behaviors over time, including obesity, smoking, drinking, drug use, sex, and bullying, to find how media exposure correlates with and may contribute to health outcomes, grades and social activities.

Content is key, the researchers believe. “Media are a way of transferring information,” says co-investigator David Bickham, PhD. “There is nothing good nor bad about the transfer device. What impacts kids is the information itself. When you start to pay attention to media you use, like paying attention to what you eat, you make better choices to avoid risk behaviors and promote healthy decisions.”

About smoking and sex, for example. “The evidence now indicates that smoking in movies is the number one motivator for kids to start smoking,” Rich says. “Other data are showing that kids watching the sexiest TV and movies initiate sexual behavior two years earlier than those who watch fewer sexual portrayals. But it’s hard to know whether Gossip Girl encourages sexual behavior or whether kids are watching the show because it looks like and validates their lives.”

Most previous studies don’t establish a clear cause-and-effect relationship, Rich says. In the association between TV and obesity, for example, which came first? The chubby cheeks or the hours watching the tube?

“When you drill more deeply into that data, kids who are watching more TV have the same activity level as kids watching less,” Rich says. “Two prime suspects are food advertising – you never see ads for broccoli — and what I call unconscious eating, where kids are distracted by media and disconnected from hunger and satiety cues.”

For that matter, what counts as watching television, in an era where when kids can watch TV shows on their cell phone, access the Internet on their TV, or stream video movies through the Internet on their computers? That’s part of what this study is capturing.

“The way we use media now is not as conscious,” says Rich. “It’s no longer like we stop everything else and go watch Lassie with the family in the living room.”

More on the video

The video above is an example of a teen’s brief recording to document his multimedia environment. It’s one piece of data that researchers hope to link to eventual health outcomes, providing an unprecedented glimpse into the media-saturated lives of today’s young people. The camera can pick up information that might go unreported on questionnaires, such as where a device is located, whether music or other media is playing in the background, and who else is around. If you look closely, you can pick up physical and social details about this teen’s environment, as well as the content of the media he’s immersed in.