Study: 'Electronic baby sitter' overexposes youth to sex, violence
Web posted at: 2:54 p.m. EDT (1854 GMT)
(CNN) -- How many parents willingly would leave their children with a baby sitter who talks incessantly of sex and violence?
A new study by the American Academy of Pediatrics indicates that is exactly what many parents are doing, when they allow their children to spend hours in front of the television -- otherwise known as "the electronic baby sitter."
Children as young as 2 are spending, on average, 16 to 17 hours in front of the television every week, according to the study published in the January edition of the AAP journal, Pediatrics.
Teen-agers, who combine television viewing with playing video games, are spending 35 hours to 55 hours in front of the tube, the study showed.
The Pediatrics study also cites findings from other studies, including one on national television violence. It concluded that children, on average, view about 10,000 violent acts on television each year.
Dr. Victor Strasburger of the University of New Mexico School of Medicine in Albuquerque is among the physicians who finds the trend alarming.
"I think the next time we see a schoolyard shooting, if we asked those kids, 'Why did you do it?' they would say, 'Hey, we're the good guys and I just wanted to blow away the bad guys,' because that's what we teach," Strasburger said. "Media violence desensitizes children."
Those worried by the teen pregnancy rate will be discouraged by statistics quoted in the Pediatrics study showing that teen-agers are being bombarded with messages of sex.
Each year, a typical teen-ager views nearly 15,000 sexual references, innuendoes and jokes on television, of which fewer than 170 deal with abstinence, birth control, sexually transmitted diseases or pregnancy.
The so-called television "family hour," from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m., contains more than eight sexual incidents per hour -- four times as many as in 1976, according to the Pediatrics study.
Alcohol, tobacco or illicit drugs are present in 70 percent of prime time network dramatic programs, the study concludes.
But the situation is not hopeless, the authors of the study said. They recommend that parents play a bigger role in their children's selection of programs.
They also advise public health workers to lobby the media and the government to help improve the quality of television programs.
Specifically, the United States needs to boost government funding for public television, the study said. The authors point out that the United States is unique in the industrialized world in spending only $1.09 per capita for public broadcasting, while the United Kingdom spends $38.56, Canada $32.15 and Japan $17.71.
The Pediatrics study also recommends that the National Institute of Mental Health undertake a new study on children and the media, with results to be published by 2002; stricter regulation of advertising that targets children; and increased regulation of educational television by the Federal Communications Commission.
"Children and teen-agers 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," the authors conclude.
Correspondent Holly Firfer contributed to this report.
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