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Today's parents have a mind-boggling array of movies, video games, CDs, and MP3s to sift through to keep abreast of their children's vast entertainment options. Rating systems supposedly created to help parents monitor the content of popular media can make the process even more challenging movies and music are rated on different scales and by different entities than video games, whose ratings can also vary depending on platform. For example, nearly identical games rated "E" for everyone on Nintendo 64 are rated "T" for teens on Playstation.
"I think the ratings systems are different by design and meant to be confusing," says Susan Villani, M.D., medical director of Kennedy Krieger Institute's School Programs.
An authority on media violence and children, Villani believes this confusion is dangerous because it limits parents' ability to monitor and regulate the amount of violent images to which their children are exposed. For several years, Dr. Villani has tracked national research about the impact of media violence on children and is working to integrate the results of that research into clinical practice and everyday life with children.
"I've had this passionate interest for a decade," she says. "I do a lot of public speaking to try and translate this research to the clinical world of pediatricians and psychiatrists who treat children, as well as to the parents who are constantly trying to figure out how best to raise their children in an era of such rapidly changing technology."
Whether or not specific content is appropriate for a particular child is, according to Dr. Villani, an individual issue. While graphic violence is not recommended for young children at all, with older children, appropriateness depends on the child's chronological age and, even more so, on the child's developmental age. Parents should first ask themselves whether their child is able to distinguish fantasy from reality and make sure he or she will not become so engrossed in a particular type of media that other activities fall by the wayside.
"It's also important to put the emphasis on the active' part of activities' because so much else in our children's lives is sedentary," says Dr. Villani. "The challenge is to get kids outdoors and moving."
A study published in 2004 indicated that children who spent the greatest amount of time playing violent video games were twice as likely to become involved in a fight at school and to have lower grades. "It's fairly simple logic," Dr. Villani states. "The games take the place of time spent on homework and activities and they script the child for solving problems with violence. There are a lot of fun, educational games out there, but also a lot of violence that is really marketed to kids."
While parents should limit and monitor their child's exposure to television, video games, and other media, complete bans are risky, too. Children may feel pressure to have a working knowledge of what these popular media are all about. "When parents severely restrict media use, their kids will just go to someone else's house and do it," notes Dr. Villani. "It's better to deal with the issues in your own home where you can talk about your values, and why you think something is or is not a good idea."
What's more, some children excel at video games the way others do at sports. "You don't take that away from a child, because it may be what he does and who he is," Dr. Villani says. "But if it exists to the exclusion or detriment of relationships and other activities and events, then it has to be addressed. If a star football player is failing in his academic subjects, he's not allowed to play. The same rules should apply to star gamers."
In addition to the amount and content of media to which their children are exposed, parents should also consider where their children consume most of this media. A current survey of 2,000 children between the ages of eight and 18 indicated that 65% had a TV in their bedroom, 36% had a VCR, 75% had a CD player, 85% had a radio, 45% had a video game player, 21% had a computer, 10% had Internet access, 30% had cable or satellite TV, and 15% had premium cable channels.
Such ready access to media can have unexpected consequences. Dr. Villani sees many children who have problems falling asleep most of whom have TVs or video game consoles in their rooms. She recommends removing these distractions before prescribing sleep medication. "Some children will fall asleep playing a game; some will wake up and play some more," she says. "Falling asleep playing or falling asleep to TV can result in sleep disturbance. When I tell parents to take the electronics out, I get the usual litany of excuses. They try if for a quarter or semester, see improvements in sleep habits and grades, and never put the TV back."