Northern Illinois University

NIU Office of Public Affairs

Mary Larson
Mary Larson

Watch It! What Parents Need to Know to Raise Media-Smart Kids

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News Release

Contact: Tom Parisi, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-3635

June 18, 2009

Note to Editor: For review copies, contact Betsy Lampe at Rainbow Books at

In new book, NIU professor warns parents
to ‘watch it’ on kids’ TV and video-game time

DeKalb, Ill. — Northern Illinois University Communication Professor Mary Larson isn’t out to frighten parents, but she is urging them to “watch it” when it comes to the amount of time their children and adolescents spend in front of TV sets, video games and computers.

Consider these startling findings:

  • More than 3,500 scientific studies have looked at the relationship between media violence and violent behavior. Only 18 of those studies failed to find a relationship between the two.
  • Children, who don’t really distinguish between fantasy and reality until about the age of 8, see an average of 25 to 30 acts of violence—in just one hour of watching cartoons.
  • Studies have demonstrated that playing violent video games correlates with an increase in aggressive behavior. Researchers believe that violence in video games is more powerful than watching television or film violence because the games are interactive.
  • In 2002, the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry announced to Congress that watching violent entertainment can lead to increases in aggressive attitudes, values and behavior, particularly in children.
  • The average adolescent is exposed to 15,000 sexual references on television per year, and 29 percent of teens report that TV is their most important source of information about sex.

Larson identifies and examines the effects of “screen time” on children and teens in her new book: “Watch it! What Parents Need to Know to Raise Media-Smart Kids” (June 2009, Rainbow Books, Inc.).

For the past two decades, Larson has been researching and teaching a graduate course on the effects of the mass media on children and adolescents. She argues that parents need to both limit and better monitor children’s time in front of the TV and other screens.

Children and adolescents spend enormous amounts of time in front of screens. In fact, kids’ exposure to TV, DVDs, computers, computer games and the Internet totals about 4½ hours a day. Larson says kids end up learning from TV how to behave in families, courtships, sexual relationships, conversations and gender roles.

Most parents recognize the powerful influence of TV on children but fail to see the influence in their own homes.

“It's comforting to think your kids know better, but how is it possible that almost all parents say TV affects other kids but not their own?” Larson says. “That’s how adults rationalize TV and video games.”

Larson’s new book points to study after study chronicling the vast amount of sex, violence and commercialism in the media and its effect on kids. She dissects TV shows and their characters, from “Sex in the City” and prime-time professional wrestling to Cliff and Clair Huxtable and Homer and Marge Simpson. The latter, she says, are actually better role models.

“The Huxtable kids were running the household,” Larson says. “Homer and Marge, even though they are stumblebums, they are steering the ship.”

“Watch It!” also examines mature-rated video games, many of which are loaded with sex and violence. “In some games, the level of violence increases as you get further into the game as if it’s a reward for good play,” Larson says. “This also makes it harder for parents to monitor the games’ contents.”

Larson’s new book points to studies that have shown three basic effects of high levels of exposure to violence in the mass media: Viewers tend to behave more violently or aggressively, they become desensitized to the violence and they develop a fear of the world around them.

“For a lot of people, their earliest memories of violence date back to scary films or TV shows they viewed at an early age,” Larson says. “The effect of fear lasts a long time.

“At the same time, kids become desensitized. As they get older, they don't even bat an eye at seeing real-life violence.”

Indeed, children’s brains are wired by their experiences from birth to about 10 years of age, Larson notes in her book. Children who are getting “simulated reality” from television, film and computers—rather than real-life experiences—risk lack of development in areas of the brain that control thinking, learning, self-control and decision-making. Some researchers believe heavy screen time might be linked to Attention Deficit Disorder.

Larson’s book offers parents guidance and practical tips on how to counter the effects of the barrage of mass media.

“It’s important for adults to open a dialogue about media with their children and adolescents,” she says. “But if I could give parents just one piece of advice to follow it would be this: Do not put a television or computer in your children’s bedrooms. Parents would find much of even daytime programming objectionable—from news shows to ‘The Jerry Springer Show’ to sexy soap operas.”

“Watch It” ultimately aims to help parents teach their children to become “media literate” so they can fully distinguish fantasy from reality and recognize commercial manipulation. Media literacy, Larson argues, ought to be taught in schools.

“We analyze poetry and prose in school, why not screens?” she says. “It certainly would make sense, given the amount of time kids spend nowadays with mass media as compared with books.”

Larson's new book can be purchased at or by contacting Rainbow Books at 1-800-431-1579. To learn more about Mary Larson, visit her Web site at She also is available for speaking engagements. Contact her at or (815) 991-5101.

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