Don't Scapegoat Media:
Negative Impact Must Be Balanced Against Technology's Many Benefits
Release 4.24 December 2008
[Originally published in
USA Today on December 4, 2008]
by Adam Thierer*
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Media have long been a convenient scapegoat for the woes of the world. In particular, fears about the influence media might have on our children have often prompted calls for "crackdowns" on speech and expression.
Typically, these fears fade as one generation's media boogeyman becomes another's treasured art form. That's not to say media don't have an impact on some children. Clearly, media are among many factors that influence culture and behavior.
But what about those other influences? Some studies summarized in the new Common Sense Media (CSM) report suggest a potential link between media exposure and certain social pathologies. But how do they account for the other variables that influence youth development, including broken homes, bad parents, socioeconomic status, troubled peer relations, poor schools and so on? And how is media exposure weighted relative to these other influences? Is a beer ad really as much of a negative influence as an alcoholic parent?
That's why it's important to recall a fundamental tenet of all social sciences: Correlation does not necessarily equal causation. Human behavior is complicated and quite difficult to measure "scientifically." Just defining "media exposure" and "negative health outcomes" is tricky enough; identifying root causes is even more challenging.
The sky hasn't fallen the way some media critics feared. While childhood obesity is a growing problem, it's important not to lose sight of the impressive gains we've made in other areas, such as falling juvenile violence, teen pregnancy, and youth drug and alcohol abuse. Moreover, even if some media negatively influence some children, that must be balanced against the many ways media inspire and empower.
The authors of the CSM survey are to be commended, however, for avoiding regulatory recommendations and instead focusing on the sensible steps parents, schools, industry and government can take to educate kids and empower families to take control over the media in their lives. More information, increased media options and better mentoring of our children are the prudent approaches.
*Adam Thierer is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Digital Media Freedom at The Progress & Freedom Foundation. This essay, which appeared in the USA Today, is a response to a new Common Sense Media study on children and the media and a USA Today editorial about it. The views expressed in this report are his own, and are not necessarily the views of the PFF board, fellows or staff.