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Youth and the new media: what next?

Now that the Internet has been with us for over 25 years, what are we to make of all the concerns about how this new medium is affecting us, especially the young digital natives who know more about how to maneuver in this space than most adults?

Although it is true that various novel media platforms have invaded households in the United States, many researchers still focus on the harms that the “old” media of television and movies still have on youth. The effects of advertising on promoting the obesity epidemic highlight how so much of those messages are directed to children and adolescents. Jennifer Harris noted that children ages 2 to 11 get nearly 13 food and beverage ads every day while watching TV, and adolescents get even more. Needless to say, many of these ads promote high-calorie, low-nutrition foods. Beer is still heavily promoted on TV with little concern about who is watching, and sexual messages are rampant across both TV and movie screens. None of this is new, but the fact that these influences remain so dominant today despite the powerful presence of new media is testament enough that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

When it comes to the new media, researchers are more balanced. Sonia Livingston from the UK reported on a massive study done in Europe that found a lot of variation in how countries are dealing with the potential harms on children. But when all was said and done, she concluded that the risks there were no more prevalent than those that kids have confronted in their daily lives offline. What has changed there is the talk about the “risks,” without much delving into whether those risks actually materialize into harms. Many kids are exposed to hurtful content in this new digital space, but many also learned how to cope with them.

2013 E3 - XBOX ONE Killer Instinct B. Uploaded by - EMR -. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.
2013 E3 – XBOX ONE Killer Instinct B. Uploaded by – EMR -. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

The perhaps most contentious of the new media influences is the emergence of video gaming, either via the Internet or on home consoles. The new DSM-5, which identifies mental disorders for psychiatrists, suggests that these gaming activities can become addictive. Research summarized by Sara Prot and colleagues suggests that about 8% of young people exhibit symptoms of this potential disorder. At the same time, we still don’t know whether gaming leads to the symptoms or is just a manifestation of other problems that would emerge anyway.

Aside from the potential addictive properties of video games, there is considerable concern about games that invite players to shoot and destroy imaginary attackers. Many young men play these violent video games and some of them are actually used by the military to prepare soldiers for battle. One could imagine that a young man with intense resentment toward others could see these games as a release or even worse as practice for potential harmdoing. The rise in school shootings in recent years only adds to the concern. The research reviewed by Prot is quite clear that playing the games can increase aggressive thoughts and behavior in laboratory settings. What remains contentious is how much influence this has on actual violence outside the lab.

On the positive side, other researchers have noted how much good both the old and new media can provide to educators and to health promoters. It is helpful to keep in mind that many of the concerns about the new media may merely reflect the age old wariness that adults have displayed regarding the role of media in their children’s behavior. In a recent review of the effects of Internet use on the brain, Kathryn Mills of University College London pointed out that even Socrates was skeptical of children learning to write because it would reduce their need to develop memory skills. Here again, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

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