Q: In trying to convince my husband that we need to consider our kids' media exposure, I get the feeling that he thinks they are just "mini adults" and that what doesn't affect us won't affect them. But the way I think about it is kind of like how we determine how much medicine to give a child. Am I correct that we give children a different dose of medicine not just because they weigh less but because they process it differently? Is it the same with media?
-Medicine Mom in Glencoe, IL
A: Dear Medicine Mom,
Yes, you are absolutely right. One of the things that makes being a pediatrician so interesting is that a growing, developing child is a constantly morphing being. Different components of her body and mind develop at different times, through infancy, childhood, and adolescence. We give different types and doses of medication to children not just because they are smaller, but also because medications have different effects on people in different phases of life.
For example, many medications that affect developing brains are not used at all, or are used in very small quantities, with kids. Why? Because a medicine that may be effective in relieving an adult's runny nose may result in seizures when a child takes it. Likewise, kids who take Tetracycline before age 8 will have their permanent teeth turn dark–but that's not true of adults who use it.
As with drugs, the developing brain and body are not only more sensitive to the effects of media but are also developing in response to those inputs. In other words, when a child is exposed to content that is new to her, such as violence or sex, she will take it at face value, learning that this is the way violence and sex operate in the world. She will integrate it into her life experience almost as if she experienced it herself. That makes it extra important to choose what your children see and hear with great care.
One example of how media affect children differently than adults is that, under the age of 7 or 8, kids can’t distinguish between fantasy and reality. Research has shown that TV shows or movies that show people transforming in some way, as The Hulk does when he's angry, are absolutely terrifying to a child–even though the transformation is obviously make-believe to an adult. And don’t be fooled…kids will say that they know it’s only make-believe, but that doesn’t mean that they truly understand that it couldn't happen in real life. Hopefully, you and your husband can learn together how to think about media experiences through your children's eyes and ears before you make decisions.
Enjoy your media and use them wisely,