Impacts of Screen Overexposure on Young People's Health
the Facts, the Damages, the SOLUTIONS

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Purpose


Screens are not only used to show a multitude of contents, including many commercials promoting unhealthy food. Whether on television, computers, video games, or DVD players, screens themselves have become the favourite past time of young people in Québec, Canada, and North America. Time spent watching these screens play a major role in the acquisition of health habits by children and teens.

Back in the middle of the 1970s, messages carried by screens already had such a powerful influence that législators in Québec, from all sides of the polical spectrum, voted unanimously a consumers protection legislation making it illegal to advertise to children under the age of 13. For more than 30 years, Québec has been the only jurisdiction in North America to protect its children with such legislation.

Public deciders vision has been confirmed by the increasing power of commercials targeting children for the last quarter of century. Budgets went from 100 million US$ in 1983 up to 17 billion in 2007. This is 170 times more money invested !

This abundance of investment triggered more competition between broadcasters, which led most of them to use more extreme and abusive strategies to attract more children in front of the tube, capture their attention for longer periods of time and at an earlier age, including babies in their coffin. We now have DVDs and special networks hooking toddlers soon after their birth all across Europe and North America. The result of early screen exposure has been to format minds to fit in a consumers' culture. Parents were told: «Sit & park your babies in front of our screens and we will show them something more interesting than their toys, more pleasant to hear than your parental voice, more educational than your family environment.» All these pretentions have proven to be fallacious.

Legislation against advertising to children does not solve everything

Thirty years after advertising to kids under 13 became illegal in Québec, five aspects rose attention among child rights' advocates.

  1. Whose responsibility is it to raise youth children's critical viewing skills? No legislation can do it by itself. Parents need encouragements and suggestions to extend in their homes the protection provided by the law.
  2. The Québec legislation was admired by many people in Canada and the U.S. How come that no other province or state have ever voted their own? What do parents in North America think about letting their children being targeted by professional marketers? Would Quebecers be the only nation on the continent to care about protecting their children from advertisers? Did Québecers inform their neighbours about the benefits they received from legislation? Should we conclude that the lobby portraying self regulation as «modern», and legislation as counterproductive, succeeded in feeding parents' illusions?
  3. Nobody should be surprised that advertising targeting kids in North America has gradually affected some young Québecers. Protecting French speaking children in the middle of an English speaking continent could not —and will never— be perfect. Advertisers have no respect for frontiers, no limit to their appetite. What means should be used to better protect young Québecers?
  4. The Québec legislation provided protection to children younger than 13. What protection is provided after 12 years old? Marketers have developed expertise in taking advantage of the many vulnerabilities of teenagers. What kind of protection shoud be provided to people older than 12? Should society let teens trust their sense of invulnerability and learn by themselves the power and appetite of marketers? Society cannot blame teens and their parents for being abused and offer no help. Helping parents has become an emergency. Both families and schools require tools for youth protection from advertising.
  5. Advertising is only a portion of youth media consumption. Negative impacts of screen exposure go far beyond commercials. What cultural products and gadgets are used to catch young people's attention and increase screen exposure time? What strategies are used to reach teenagers, what networks and channels are used? How can modern societies help their youth in developing a kind of media consumption more aware, more advised, more responsible? How could adults counter the negative impacts of media exposure and raise healthy habits in future generations?

The price of screen overexposure : sedentarity and aggressivity

In April 2010, Canadian families received the health report card of their children. Obesity is on the rise and time for physical activity is going down. Short form of the report card can be found here.

Canadian children and teens got an «F» for the 4th year in a row for (not enough) physical activity. Annual report card from Active Healthy Kids Canada reveals that 88% of children and teens lack sufficient amount of physical activities.

The report card also indicates another «F» for too much screen exposure: young Canadians spend 6 hours in front of screens on week days, and more than 7 hours/day on weekends, for a total of 44 hours/week. Studies reveal that excessive screen time exposure is associated with lower academic achievement, as well as high-risk behaviours, such as smoking, drinking alcohol and sexual intercourse.

or public health professionals and parents, media consumption has become a major public health issue. Screens represent an obstacle to healthy physical, psychological, and social development.

Obesity

Many studies have linked screen time exposure to the propagation of various unhealthy habits, including obesity pandemics affecting an increasing percentage of young people in most countries across the world. A recent study by Statistics Canada revealed that simply watching television would bring metabolism lower than reading, (1,3) almost as low as sleeping (1,0 for television compared to 0,9 for sleeping). Statement by Julie Mandeville reported by daily newspaper Le Devoir in June 2008 is clear: «From a public health point of view, it is more cost effective to keep people away from television than promoting physical activity.»

Violence

Violent content is also a problem. Dr Frederick Zimmerman (University of Washington) kept track of 1300 children from the age of 4 to 11. As head researcher of the study , he concluded that «each hour of TV exposure increased by 9% the risk of becoming a school yard bully. Bullying adds up to other potentially negative consequences of excessive consumption of TV, such as obesity, attention deficit disorder and aggressivity.»

At the same time, three major daily newspaper in Baltimore, Los Angleles, and Washington reported and commented data from another study published by Science Magazine in March 2002. Psychiatrist Jeffrey Johnson's team, from Columbia University, followed during 17 years, 700 teenagers living in the State of New York. Researchers formed three sub-groups of youth according to TV consumption during their teenage years:

  1. Those with less than 1 hour par day of TV exposure: 6% had a violent criminal record.
  2. Those exposed between 1 and 3 hours per day: 22,5% had a violent criminal record.
  3. Those with more than 3 hours of daily exposure: 29% had a violents criminal record.

Evidence is clear: there is an actual link between teens' TV consumption and their criminal record as adults. «Parents should not let their child watch television more than one hour per day» said Dr Johnson. The study also revealed that the TV factor was higher than 6 other factors, including parental neglect, aggressive behaviour during teenage years, neighbourhood violence, psychiatric problems, parents' income and scholarship.

According to Dr Leonard Eron, researcher at University of Michigan, the TV factor is obvious. "I would have thought that teenagers were less affected than children" said Eron, who started studying the link between TV and aggression in the early 1960s: "The study by Dr Johnson shows that effects of TV exposure are pervasive."

The number of violent scenes on prime time television is not going down. Two researchers from Laval University, in Québec City, monitored aggressions during hours when children are watching. Their report recalls that back in 1993, Canadian broadcasters committed to self regulate and reduce the amount of violence aired on public airwaves before 8 PM. Research revealed that Canadian broadcasters increased doses of violence by more than 400% between 1993 and 2001, despite firm commitment made 8 years before. In less than a decade, the average amount of violence went from 10 acts of aggression per hour up to 52 in 2001.

The Director of Media and Child Health Center at Boston Children's Hospital and spokeperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), Dr Michael Rich declared in 2001: «More than 3500 research studies have examined the association between media violence and violent behavior; all but 18 have shown a positive relationship

Despite almost unanimous conclusions, a few organisations calling themselves «media educational» have taken advantage of their interventions with teachers to call this question «controversy». Such organisations financed by the industry use have tried to deny what scientists and most Canadians already know:

  • 70% of Canadians think that entertainment media violence contributes to youth violence,
  • 84% of Canadians believe that it is important that government take steps to limit the amount of violence that children are exposed to on television, in movies, video games, the Internet and other entertainment media,
  • 91% of Québecers say that they would support limits imposed by government.

Other troubles related to screens

Other aspects of media consumption also affect the acquisition of healthy habits by youth:

  • According to the Canadian pediatrics Society, media consumption actually affects tobacco and acohol use, poor nutrition and obesity, unhealthy body image, and risky sexual behaviour and attitudes.
  • Other impacts of screen exposure have also come under closer scrutiny: lost of compassion, depression, fears and phobias, nightmares and sleep perturbation, criminal car driving, anorexia and boulimia, school performance and drop-out, attention deficit disorder & hyper-activity, etc.
  • Researchers at Yale University have reviewed 1800 studies and compared conclusions of the 173 most important about health and screens. Conclusion? Most confirmed impacts include obesity, tobacco addiction, sexual behaviour, drugs and alcohol use, weak school performances and attention deficit disorder.

Taking action together

When facing the increase of youth's screen time exposure, isolated health and education workers have little influence. Trained to intervene from their own working place, for their own particular employer, public health prevention services stay powerless when required to protect youth efficiently and keep parents informed about the serious impacts of screen exposure.

Clearly, Canada does not respect Article 17e of the Convention on the Rights of the Child requiring the States Parties to take action in order to «protect children from information and material injurious to their well-being».

How can society provide better protection against the negative impacts of screen exposure?

That is the central question this 2nd Conference will try to answer !

In the context described above, the Montréal YWCA, Edupax and the Action Coalition for Media Education (ACME) have decided to join efforts and follow up with the 1st Conference held in Gatineau (QC) in November 2009. This 2nd Conference on the «Impacts of Screen Overexposure on Youth Health» will host 30 of the finest experts concerned by youth health habits related to screen exposure.

Researchers, educators, organisation leaders and activists will use this rare opportunity to share knowledge, success stories and failures, with parents, teachers, health professionals, public health deciders, school authorities, principals, parents councils, police officers, political deciders and reporters.

Organisers of this 2nd Conference wish that our whole society, from families up to top authorities of concerned departments, develop a common vision that will allow thousands of citizens of all ages to work together to take Action for Independant Media Education. Our society has the moral obligation to protect and inform its youth about the impacts of screen exposure on their health. It is also necessary to inform parents about the strategies of the industries using screens to promote unhealthy food and sedentarity lifestyle.

Lilia Goldfarb Jacques Brodeur Action Coalition for
YWCA Montréal Edupax Media Education(ACME)

Members of our Organising Committee would be very happy to meet you at the conference and expects that you will help forward our invitation to your colleagues, contacts, and members.