Your health
By Sally Robinson and Keith Bly

By the time an average child finishes high school, he or she will have spent thousands of hours in front of the television set. Today, many pediatricians believe excessive television viewing by youngsters reinforces such destructive behaviors as alcohol abuse and cigarette smoking.

According to a study published in Pediatrics (the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics), television and other media represent one of the most important and under-recognized influences on child and adolescent health. 

“American media contribute more to adverse health outcomes than to positive or prosocial ones,” according to authors from the University of Mexico School of Medicine, Albuquerque, and the University of California, Santa Barbara. 

Young people average 16 to 17 hours of television viewing weekly, beginning as early as age 2, the article states. When video game and videocassette usage are added, some teenagers may spend as many as 35-55 hours in front of the TV. 

Citing more than 150 references, the authors note the following: 

• Young people view an estimated 10,000 violent acts each year. A recent National Television Violence Study examined nearly 10,000 hours of television programming in a three-year period and found that 61 percent contained violence, with children’s programming being the most violent. 

• Each year, teenagers view nearly 15,000 sexual references, innuendoes and jokes of which less than 170 will deal with abstinence, birth control, sexually transmitted diseases or pregnancy. The so-called family hour of prime time television (between 7 and 9 p.m.) contains more than eight sexual incidents per hour, four times more than in 1976.

 • Alcohol, tobacco or illicit drugs are present in 70 percent of prime time network dramatic programs, 38 out of 40 top-grossing movies and half of all music videos. 

• For every “just say no” or “know when to say when” public service announcement, teens will view 25-50 beer and wine advertisements.

 • Tobacco manufacturers spend $6 billion per year and alcohol manufacturers $2 billion in all media trying to entice young people into just saying yes.

 Many solutions exist, from developing new ways to regulate the media (governmental role) to improving the product itself (entertainment industry’s role).

 Parents also play a key role in a child’s television-viewing experience. We do not recommend TV sets in kids’ bedrooms as it promotes unsupervised television watching. Here are some additional things you can do:

 • Watch television with your child and discuss the program and commercial content. 

• Always be aware of what your youngster watches. 

• Restrict overall TV viewing. 

The authors of the study conclude, “Children and teenagers comprise a captive audience for entertainment producers, but they also represent the next and only source of adults in American society. As such, they deserve far better than what they are being exposed to now.”

 Sally Robinson is a clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston Children’s Hospital and Keith Bly is an assistant professor of pediatrics in the UTMB Children’s Emergency Room. This column is not intended to replace the advice of a physician.