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PEDIATRIC PERSPECTIVE

Immunize your children against health dangers of TV

The Federal Communications Commission and some conservative groups say television exposure to foul language and partial nudity is harmful to children. They believe that young people were injured when Nicollette Sheridan from ''Desperate Housewives" dropped her towel in a provocative Monday Night Football introduction, when U2's Bono uttered the F-word at the Golden Globes, and when ABC affiliates wanted to run ''Saving Private Ryan," which includes cursing servicemen.

Borrowing the language of public health, the FCC and others argue that even a single exposure to such language and undress is a dangerous toxin for children, like lead in paint.

Unfortunately, our relying on these groups to protect children from media is misguided, since they're addressing the wrong problem. The danger isn't the occasional F-word or exposed breast, but the other messages encouraging unhealthy behavior.

Today, the average high school student also sees almost 3,000 commercial messages daily, since marketers know American youths spend $155 billion yearly. To survive this onslaught, children must learn how to consume media wisely.

Of course we don't want the airwaves and other media filled with nudity and curse words. But the truly unhealthy messages are the commercials that, for example, encourage children to smoke, drink beer and overeat junk food. We need a better tactic to protect our children -- one not based on toxicology but on vaccination.

In their decision to fine NBC for Bono's language, the FCC argued that a single exposure to offensive media could be dangerous, since according to the FCC, ''even isolated broadcasts of the 'F-Word' " could harm ''the well-being of the country's youth."

Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy said: ''Today we take [a] significant step in protecting our children," having previously referred to ''laboratory experiments" about the media's harm to youth.

Media can indeed be toxic in ''isolated broadcasts," but only in bizarre and unusual ways. In 1997, for example, the cartoon, ''Pokmon," aired in Japan, and after a character fought a ''virus bomb" depicted by flashing lights, 600 children were taken to hospitals for seizures from photo-sensitivity epilepsy. In 1986, the New England Journal of Medicine reported that showing suicide on television temporarily increases teenage suicide rates. No study has shown harm from small amounts of sexual content or profanity, however, as well-detailed in Marjorie Heins's book, ''Not in Front of Our Children."

It's futile to try to get rid of such exposure altogether. Even though the F-word is banned on television, 90 percent of children over 5 know curse words, and the most popular word by far is the F-word, said Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts psychologist and profanity scholar Timothy Jay.

Instead of focusing on exposure, we should inoculate children against harm by teaching them to be educated consumers and avoid being manipulated by advertisers.

According to Victor Strasburger of the University of New Mexico, vast research shows that commercial messages powerfully increase consumption of unhealthy products, such as cigarettes, alcohol, and junk food.

Alcohol, the most popular drug among youths ages 12 to 17 years, is advertised brilliantly to children, with images of fun-loving frogs, lizards, and nubile hipsters. Suburban Maryland children in one study could name more brands of beer than US presidents.

The solution relies on teaching children how to deconstruct media and consume it critically -- thus making them ''media-literate." Making children aware of how they are manipulated, writes Dr. Michael Rich of Children's Hospital in a medical journal, ''functions as a 'mind condom,' a barrier method [which protects] against the unhealthy influences of media." In cinematic metaphor, media literacy is like entering the ''Matrix," where awareness of one's manipulation is irreversible: You can't return to naivete.

Media literacy education teaches children, beginning in elementary school, how to ask critical questions about content. From a young age, children learn to consider the following: Who pays for a program, and who is targeted as a viewer? How do the creators want kids to respond? What lifestyles and values are represented by the message? What information is being left out? How does the program affect health? In contrast to passive viewing, learning media literacy requires adult involvement and active viewing.

It's not hard for parents to start teaching this skill. You begin by watching television with children and teenagers, and later talk about it. What impression of women did the Victoria Secret ad convey? Why did Cheetos think a cute cartoon would get children to eat junk food? Why did a contest about redesigning the Pepsi bottle appear in ''The Apprentice?"

Media literacy has important, measurable health benefits, and can also be taught effectively in medical clinics and classrooms. In recent studies, these curriculums have been linked to reduced obesity and reduced interest in alcohol.

The Florida Department of Health's ''Truth" program produced ads in which savvy teenagers exposed the manipulative advertising of tobacco companies. Broadcast of these commercials correlated with a 40 percent decline in regular youth smokers. Impressively, various classroom-based media literacy programs have been tied to a reduction in male teenage athletes' use of steroids (the ATLAS program), abnormal body images by teenage girls (the GO GIRLS! program), and peer aggression in third- and fourth-graders.

Consider that most American kids use media, including television and other broadcast material, for eight hours daily, which is more time than is spent in school or with parents. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the United States lags behind other developed countries in requiring media education for children. Today, media literacy programs represent a breakthrough rivaling many life-saving medicines, and they deserve wide use in clinics and schools. Families, too, should consider teaching media literacy a key part of parenting.

For more information on media literacy curriculums, see the Center for Media Literacy (www.medialit.org) and PBS (www.pbs.org/teachersource/media_lit/media_lit.shtm). A good introduction for teenagers is the Frontline documentary, ''The Merchants of Cool," also free at www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/cool/. And www.cmch.tv, which is still under development, will soon have an area dedicated to teaching children media literacy.

Dr. Darshak Sanghavi is a clinical fellow at Children's Hospital and Harvard Medical School. His e-mail address is sanghavi@post.harvard.edu. 

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