July 20, 2011

Expert discusses kids' media exposure with doctors

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- The level and kind of media exposure a child receives are among the questions that pediatricians should ask when talking with parents, according to an international scholar on the role of media in children's lives.

Dafna Lemish, a professor and chair of Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Department of Radio-Television, said questions about media use and the number of hours a child spends in front of the television, computer, or playing video games is as important as issues of nutrition and hygiene.

“This is another environmental issue that pediatricians, when they are looking at a child’s environment when trying to tackle issues of health, need to take into consideration,” she said.

Lemish spoke last month at the 5th Europaediatrics congress, a four-day international conference that brings together pediatricians from around the world for updates on a variety of topics through lectures, speakers, symposiums and practical courses, according to the website. The conference occurs every two years and took place this summer in Vienna, Austria.

Lemish presented, “How media affect children and adolescents and what you can do?” at the conference on June 25. The congress attracted 2,062 delegates from 92 countries, and approximately 150 delegates attended Lemish’s lecture, according to event officials.

Pediatricians need to consider a child’s media environment the same way they are concerned with a youngster’s health, nutrition, immunization, and safety, Lemish said.

“Physicians are concerned with hygiene and nutrition; this is mental nutrition,” she said.

Cumulative research shows a correlation between media consumption and health issues, Lemish said. The exposure level to television, computers and video games can impact a child’s health, sleeping habits, weight, and social interactions with others. There is quite a bit of evidence of a correlation between young children who have television sets in their bedrooms and those who get less sleep and have nightmares.

The more time a child spends playing video games, on a computer or watching television also means the child is not involved with physical activity, resulting potentially in weight gain. Children often eat more while watching television, particularly with the heavy dose of child-friendly advertising that focuses on food showcasing high-calorie and high-sugar products, Lemish said.

There is also concern over the impact that constant television or computer usage has on brain development and stimulation in children under two years old, she said.

Before coming to SIUC in July 2010, Lemish was chair and professor in the Department of Communication at Tel Aviv University. Since 2008, she has served as a visiting professor at the Center on Media and Child Health at Harvard Medical School in Boston. She is also editor of the “Journal of Children and Media,” a multi-disciplinary and multi-method academic journal she founded five years ago.

Lemish said she does not expect pediatricians to earn doctorates in media studies, but that it is important to discuss with parents the amount of media exposure their children receive from a variety of sources. The concerns are not only for infants and toddlers, but include children through their teen years with factors involving aggression and bullying, sex education, as well as alcohol, smoking and drug abuse prevention, she said.

Lemish said her hope is pediatricians will bring to parents’ attention that there is a relationship between media and a child’s development by not only considering what the child eats, but also the time spent watching television, playing video games or on the computer and the specific content they are exposed to.

“It’s just another question when you see the parents and call their attention to thinking about media in their child’s lives,” she said.

Lemish said it was an honor to speak at a conference where discussions center on immunizations, treatments, disease, and other medical- and health-oriented issues. Her presentations are often at academic conferences that include media scholars, education scholars, and parents.

“It was a wonderful opportunity for me to reach an audience I usually do not reach,” she said.

Lemish said the conference also leaves her “highly motivated” to work more in bridging the communications studies and medical disciplines. She would like to see medical school students have some kind of training about media and children as part of their child development study.

“Communication studies has so much to contribute to other disciplines, including professional disciplines like the medical profession,” she said. “It did reinforce for me the necessity and importance of a dialogue between communications studies, the health profession, and doctors.”