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Last updated on April 19, 2014 at 18:42 EDT

Media Exposure Harmful To Physical Health Of Teens And Children

December 2, 2008

A report released Tuesday by the advocacy group Common Sense Media says that children and teens who spend too much time watching TV, playing video games or surfing the Internet are at higher risk for a multitude of health problems, such as obesity and smoking.

In one of the most comprehensive reviews of the impact of media exposure on children’s physical health, experts with the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), Yale University and the California Pacific Medical Center analyzed 173 prior studies conducted since 1980, most of which were done in the United States.

The studies mainly focused on television, although some involved video games, music, films and computer and Internet use. Nearly 75 percent found that increased media viewing was associated with negative health consequences.

The analysis strongly supports the position that children who get more media exposure increase their risks of obesity, smoking and earlier sexual activity than those who spend less time watching TV or surfing the Internet.

The studies also linked media exposure to drug and alcohol use and poorer performance in school.  However, the effect of media exposure on attention deficit hyperactivity disorder was less clear, the researchers said.

“I think we were pretty surprised by how overwhelming the number of studies was that showed this negative health impact,” NIH bioethicist Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, one of the researchers, told Reuters.

“The fact that it was probably more a matter of quantity than actual content is also a concern. We have a media-saturated life right now in the 21st century. And reducing the number of hours of exposure is going to be a big issue.”

Experts have long been concerned about the impact violence and sexual content on TV and the Internet have on young viewers.  Furthermore, kids who spend time sitting on a couch watching TV or playing computer games might otherwise be outdoors running or getting other forms of exercise. 

One particular study cited in the report found that children who spent more than eight hours per week watching TV at age 3 were more likely to be obese at age 7. Alarmingly, research shows that many children, and even toddlers, in the United States watch far more.

Dr. Cary Gross of Yale University School of Medicine, one of the researchers involved in the analysis, said media can have a profound impact on children’s attitudes and beliefs, particularly among teens.

Dr. Gross pointed to a U.S. study by the RAND research organization published last month. That research showed that teens who watched more sexually-themed programming had a higher risk of becoming pregnant or causing a pregnancy.

Indeed, thirteen of 14 studies that looked at sexual behavior discovered an association between media exposure and earlier initiation of sexual behavior, according to the researchers.

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