Chapter 22. Using Social Media to Empower Parents in the Digital Age: Ask the Mediatrician

Brandy King and Michael Rich

Brandy King holds a Master’s in Library and Information Science from Simmons College as well as a Bachelor’s degree in English and Women’s Studies from Smith College. She has been the librarian at CMCH for six years where her role has changed from gathering research for in-house staff to pushing research out to the public through online channels. Her cutting-edge work with semantics and ontologies was nationally recognized when she was given the Special Libraries Association Innovations in Technology Award. She is also the author of a book titled Finding the Concept, Not Just the Word: A Librarian’s Guide to Ontologies and Semantics.

Michael Rich, Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and Associate Professor of Society, Human Development, and Health at Harvard School of Public Health, came to medicine after a 12-year career as a filmmaker (including serving as assistant director to Akira Kurosawa on Kagemusha). His current areas of health research and clinical work bring together his experience and expertise in medicine and media, making him the world’s first “Mediatrician.” He has authored more than 25 research papers in journals such as Pediatrics, Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, Journal of Adolescent Health, and American Journal of Public Health. He was awarded the New Investigator Award for the Society for Adolescent Medicine and has been elected a member of the Society for Pediatric Research, a Fellow of the Society for Adolescent Medicine, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

In the 1950s, when television became the center of American households, psychologists and politicians raised concern for its effects, calling researchers to testify to Congress about the influence of television on juvenile delinquency. Television executives did not challenge the research, instead suggesting that worries about negative influences were driven by values that were not universally shared. Framing television effects as a values-based issue drove the debate headlong into the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, effectively diverting politicians and the public from concerns for the well-being of individuals and society and uniting them around freedom of expression. The discourse over media effects on the health and development of children has been dominated and decided by First Amendment considerations to this day, stalemating serious public discourse and limiting funding for research.

Concerns about negative effects on children gave rise to increasing attention from pediatricians starting in the 1970s (Rich, 2007), but the public was reassured by educational television and relieved that freedom of expression allowed them to embrace rapidly expanding media technologies and diversifying content. The evidence was growing, but it was fragmented and isolated by the rigid silos of individual academic disciplines. Parents, teachers, and others working with children became increasingly worried about distraction, aggression, isolation, and obesity as media technologies proliferated, became cheaper and became more accessible to children of all ages. Today 8- to 18-year-olds use media for an average of seven hours and 38 minutes each day (The Henry J Kaiser Family Foundation, 2010) and more than one-fourth of children under age two have televisions in their bedrooms, watching for an average of nearly one and a half hours a day (Rideout & Hamel, 2006).

The Center on Media and Child Health (CMCH) was established in 2002 to take an evidence-based approach to the issue. The goal of CMCH is to be a values-neutral, unbiased resource for all stakeholders, from media consumers to producers, who seek to understand and respond to the positive and negative influences of media on children. Approaching media use through scientific fact, much as we approach children’s nutrition or automobile safety, CMCH can respond most effectively to what may be the most ubiquitous environmental influence on children’s physical, mental, and social well-being. By reframing what has been values-based and contentious discourse to a quantifiable measure of public health, CMCH allows all stakeholders to come together around a common interest in children’s well-being, understand the facts, and work together to improve the environment in which children develop.

The foundation of CMCH’s evidence base is a comprehensive, up-to-date library of the “state of the knowledge” on media and their effects on children drawn from more than a dozen academic disciplines. Citations for the research papers in the CMCH Database of Research (www.cmch.tv) have been standardized into a format that includes both scientific abstracts and plain language summaries. Yet even the most user-friendly database is not how parents typically learn parenting. So how do we translate this research into useful information to inform parents about the benefits and risks of media use?

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