May. 19, 2010

Psychologist's New Book Addresses Effects of Media on Youth


GENESEO, N.Y. -- Very few issues in child and adolescent psychology have caused as much controversy the past 35 years as the effects of media on the behavior of infants, children and adolescents.

Research indicates that children and youth are spending an increasing amount of time in front of a television, mobile phone or computer screen, as much as 8 - 10 hours per day. What are the known effects, the myths and the risk factors of such exposure, especially exposure to violence?

Steven Kirsh, professor of psychology at SUNY Geneseo, addresses those questions in his recently published book, "Media and Youth: A Developmental Perspective." Kirsh has compiled the most recent scholarly findings on the topic to demonstrate the risks and benefits that different media have on various age groups.

"Media are among the many risk factors children and youth are exposed to that influence their behavior," says Kirsh. "Parenting, peers and biological predispositions have the most impact on behavior, but the general effects of media and the magnitude of those effects will vary with age. Adolescence, for example, is a time of increased vulnerability to media images related to body image, sex and violence because that is the key point of development for determining one's identity and exploring unknown areas. The media can become a super-peer and actually dictate to a greater extent what the effects may be."

Kirsh says it's the balance of risk and protective factors that determines attitudes and behaviors in children and youth. The more risk or fewer protective factors they are exposed to, the greater likelihood of negative influences occurring, such as those they see in media.

"Media will have different influences at different times of development, depending on this balance of risk and protection the child or youth experiences," says Kirsh. "We can't just view all media as good or bad. Media don't reside in a vacuum."

Kids who are violent, sexually obsessed, racist or the like, says Kirsh, tend to seek out media that conform or mimic those notions.

"Media provide a reinforcing factor," he says. "The media may not be creating the prejudice or increased violence or sexual desire, but the media can be a risk factor that leads to the reinforcement of those belief systems."

Researchers are beginning to yield results on the influence of social media on children and youth, and Kirsh says the early belief that preoccupation with social media would suppress social skills and lead to increased loneliness is not borne out in current literature.

"We're finding that kids using social media to chat with friends can be beneficial as long as the feedback is positive," says Kirsh. "If they get negative feedback, then they end up with rejection and loneliness. It's not a matter of if they are using it but how they are using it, and that is the key to the consumption of all media."

Kirsh's book was published by Wiley and is targeted for both educational settings and general readers.

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