What is the relationship between media exposure and mental health?

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Media exposure is increasingly prevalent, but its impact is still not completely understood. Research indicates that the quantity, content, and context of media exposure influence the psychological, social, and behavioral development of children and adolescents. Violent media exposure affects behavior and social interactions of both children and young men, and media exposure to female standards of beauty affects women’s and adolescent girls’ attitudes toward their bodies and to gender roles.
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Because children and adolescents are in the process of developing cognitive, social, and behavioral traits, media exposure typically has a greater effect on the psychological, cognitive, and social health of young people than of adults. Studies have found both positive and negative effects of media, including television, video games, and the Internet, on children. Media can be educational for children, expanding their general knowledge and improving their cognitive skills. However, the exposure of children and adolescents to media can promote aggressiveness, early (and risky) sexual behavior, desensitization to the pain of others, anxiety, sleep problems, attention problems, and reduced literacy.

Excessive media exposure, in the form of television viewing or recreational computer use, has been associated with increased social isolation in children and adolescents. In particular, children’s viewing of violent television programs appears to be closely linked to decreased social interaction with peers. In young men, exposure to violent media has been associated with uncooperative behavior, negative affect, and hostile social information processing. Exposure to violent media has also been shown to interact with violence in the home and community of these men to further increase hostile social information processing.

For both women and adolescent girls, images of unrealistically thin and large-bosomed “desirable” women and the depiction of women as sex objects in the media may negatively affect self-esteem and their attitudes toward their bodies. In some individuals, this can result in eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Some women and girls may also undergo multiple plastic surgeries, including liposuction and breast enhancement, in an attempt to achieve the “perfect” figure.

Whatever the effects of media exposure on the mental and cognitive health of children and adults, these issues will only become more pressing as digital devices that play videos, games, and television shows become more ubiquitous. Intervention and treatment for the psychological disturbances caused by media exposure include parental monitoring and control of media content to which children are exposed, and cognitive behavior therapy for women and adolescent girls with body issues and eating disorders.

Television Viewing

Children and adolescents are exposed to an unprecedented quantity and diversity of media. Because they are undergoing cognitive, social, and behavioral development, they are also more vulnerable to being affected by media exposure. Many young people spend several hours a day watching television or using a computer. In the United States, children spend an average of twenty-seven hours per week watching television. In the 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey conducted on high school students by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researchers, just over 32 percent of students said they watched television for three or more hours per school day. The highest percentage of students viewing three or more hours of television was found among African American high school students (more than 54 percent), with Latino students having the next highest percentage (almost 38 percent), and white students having a lower percentage (less than 26) than either Latino or black students.

The impact of television watching on children’s behavior has been studied by various researchers. Some researchers have found that television viewing has no effect on the amount of time a child spends socializing with other children. Other researchers, however, assert that television viewing displaces the time a child would normally spend socializing with other children and interacting with family members. Other studies have found that children viewing a lot of television, especially programs with violent content, had increased antisocial behavior and decreased positive social behaviors. These negative social behaviors increase the likelihood of social isolation and make it more difficult for children to develop successful peer relationships. This negative effect can also trigger a vicious cycle whereby children who watch more television become more socially isolated, which makes them watch even more television to compensate for their lack of social interactions, which further increases their social isolation.

A study conducted by researchers at the Center on Media and Child Health at Harvard Medical School revealed that the content (violent or nonviolent) and the context (with friends or without friends) of television viewing is important in determining how much time children spend socially interacting with their peers. According to the study, the amount of time spent viewing violent television programs had a negative impact on the amount of time children spent with their friends in nontelevision-related social activities. Each extra hour of viewing resulted in a 12.1 percent decrease in peer social time in six- to eight-year-olds and a 9.8 percent decrease in nine- to twelve-year-olds. Viewing violent television programs also increased aggressiveness and violent behavior in children.

Although this link between viewing violent television programs and aggressive behavior has been discussed since the 1970s, meta-analyses were not performed until the 1990s. These later studies suggest that aggressive behavior induced by viewing violent television programs may be caused by simple mimicking behavior, arousal of angry emotions that erupt later in response to subsequent events, or observational learning from violence portrayed as normal behavior that gets rewarded. Viewing of nonviolent television programs, in contrast, did not affect time spent socially interacting with peers. Interestingly, if children watched television with friends, they were more likely to spend time with friends in nontelevision-related social activities. For six- to eight-year-olds, one more hour of viewing television with friends led to 59 minutes of additional time spent in nontelevision-related social activities. For nine- to twelve-year-olds, this number increased slightly to 62 minutes.

Computer Use

In the 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey on high school students, 31 percent of students used acomputer for activities not related to school work (including computer or video games) for three or more hours per school day, and increase from 25 percent in 2007. The highest percentage of children using a computer for three or more hours per school day was found among Asian American high school students (42 percent), with African American students having the next highest percentage (38), and white students having the lowest percentage (28).

Potential problems of Internet use include the possibility of encountering disturbing content, including images and videos, as well as exposure to cyberbullying. Children who use the Internet are also vulnerable to sexual predators who may pose as children or friendly adults on social networking sites and arrange to meet in person.

Cyberbullying, or online harassment, is a growing problem and involves the embarrassment or intimidation of others, for example, through the online posting or instant messaging of rude, humiliating, or threatening messages. Online harassment is a problem for both those doing the harassment and those being harassed. One study reported that approximately 15 percent of children were online harassers. These children tended to have poor caregiver-child relationships and were much more likely to engage in delinquent behavior and substance abuse and to themselves be victims of traditional bullying.

Many children are also exposed to video games on a regular basis. It is well documented that playing violent video games increases aggressive behavior, including the tendency to act out physically by, for example, hitting, kicking, choking, or wrestling. Children playing these games are more likely to act aggressively when they fail to get what they want. They are imitating behavior that was rewarded in their video games. Children who spend a lot of time playing video games or using the computer are more likely to become socially isolated and withdrawn. Some solutions that parents can use to counteract the negative effects of video games are restricting the types of games their children play, not allowing video game systems and televisions in their children’s bedrooms, and encouraging their children to interact and participate in activities with other children. When selecting appropriate video games for children, it is important for parents to research the games themselves, because studies have found that video game ratings sometimes do not accurately reflect the amount of violence actually present in games. Even video games given seemingly innocuous ratings such as E (Everyone) and T (Teen) often contain significant violence and substance use.

Cell Phone Use

The excessive use of cell phones has been linked to mental health problems. One study found an association between addictive cell phone use and poor self-esteem. Another study found that teenagers with the heaviest cell phone use were more likely to be depressed and anxious. The number of cases of bullying via text messaging and instant messaging, particularly among girls, is increasing. These forms of cyberbullying can cause psychological and emotional distress in recipients. Incoming calls, text messages, and e-mails throughout the night may disrupt sleep and result in sleepiness and decreased concentration the next day. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2013 about 78 percent of teenagers in the United States had a cell phone, and almost half of those were smartphones; therefore, understanding the mental, social, and behavioral impact of teen cell phone use is essential.

Young Men

Violence depicted in television programs, films, and video games can have a strong effect on the behavior of young men. One model of how violence provokes aggression suggests that exposure to violence in the media may affect the internal state of an individual, including cognition (in the form of proviolent attitudes), affect (anger), and arousal (manifesting as high blood pressure). In a study of young male undergraduates aged eighteen to twenty-one years, subjects either played a violent video game, Grand Theft Auto III, or a nonviolent game, The Simpsons: Hit and Run. The young men who played the violent game exhibited raised blood pressure, more negative (angry) affect, and more hostile social information processing. These young men also had more permissive attitudes toward alcohol and marijuana use, and tended to be less cooperative during a subsequent task. When the backgrounds of the young men were taken into account, the subjects from homes and communities with higher levels of violence showed higher systolic blood pressure and more hostile social information processing following exposure to media violence. The researchers hypothesized that young men with higher exposure to violence in the home and community may have more difficulty interpreting ambiguous social cues as nonhostile after being primed for hostile thoughts by exposure to media violence. Regardless of the level of violence in the backgrounds of the young men, however, they were all susceptible to raised blood pressure and the exhibition of negative affect, hostile social information processing, uncooperative behavior, and more permissive attitudes toward substance use.

Media’s Depiction of Women

The portrayal of women in the mainstream media can have a powerful effect on the attitudes of women and adolescent girls toward their bodies. Women in the media are often narrowly depicted as young and thin, as sex objects, or in the traditional, subservient mold. There is an overwhelming emphasis on the importance of physical beauty and attractiveness in all forms of media, including television programs, films, magazines, newspapers, and music videos, as well as print and television advertisements. The media mostly portray a standard of beauty according to which a woman must be young, thin, and shapely.

Studies in college-age women have linked media exposure to eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. Women who are at high risk for an eating disorder often are dissatisfied with their bodies, compare their physical appearance with that of others, and exhibit perfectionism, a compulsion to be thin, and feelings of ineffectiveness. These women frequently show a high degree of internalization of media messages about physical beauty. Interventions such as media literacy programs, which involve cognitive behavior therapy, can decrease some of these symptoms and reduce the risk of eating disorders in high-risk women.

Adolescent girls are especially vulnerable to the influence of media messages. Prime-time television programs most favored by adolescents convey the message that physical beauty is important for attracting partners and for success in life. Another detrimental message common in all forms of media is that a major role of women is to appear attractive to men; their appearance, body size, and weight are continually the subject of comments. Adolescent girls may easily internalize these messages of the supposedly ideal girl or woman and the traditional role of women as sexual objects who are subservient to men. One study looking at African American adolescent girls’ response to media exposure showed that girls who were more exposed to music and music videos containing gender stereotypes expressed more traditional views about gender roles. Girls who identified with the female characters in television shows and music videos were also more likely to echo traditional views of gender and assign high importance to physical attractiveness.


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