September 14, 2015

Media Diet

Katie Noorbakhsh, MD FAAP
Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh

Media diet [mee-dee-uh dahy-it]: noun - The phrase that changed the way I thought about my children’s interaction with media.

For years, my goal was simply to keep my children’s screen time to less than two hours per day.  The concept of the media diet for my kids resonated with me, in part because I realized I would never take such a simplistic attitude with feeding them. Teaching and modeling how to eat in a healthy manner is far more complex than just limiting yourself to an arbitrary number of daily calories. In much the same way, teaching my children to interact with media in a healthy manner is also more complex than simply limiting their screen time to a number of minutes.

Until a few months ago, we had a habit of starting our mornings with cartoons. I have three children under five and work in the Emergency Department.  A thirty minute cartoon at 6 a.m. allowed us to ease into my post-shift mornings, limiting my role as a human jungle gym just long enough to finish a mostly-hot cup of coffee. And thirty minutes of cartoons is not a big deal. The trouble begins with ‘just one more.’ “Just one more show. Please, mom?” Just one more cup of coffee. OK, kids? Just a few more minutes of peace. Before I knew it, three hours of our day could evaporate into brightly colored, overly enthusiastic, two-dimensional story lines. Add on a request to play an iPad app (It’s educational!) or a family movie night (It’s a classic!) and I started to worry how we would manage screen time when our children were older and the demands became more challenging.

The concept of a “media diet” pops up in marketing  and communications  literature from the early 1980s. The term gained popularity in the news media  in the 1990’s with the introduction of the v-chip and increasing discussion of how types of media might impact young children. The August 2000 publication of the Journal of Adolescent Medicine featured two articles that addressed the concept.  In Media and youth: access, exposure and privatization  Donald F. Roberts discusses the results of a survey regarding the volume and breadth of media exposure among American children. Jane Brown’s article, Adolescents' sexual media diets  lays out a media food pyramid, illustrating types of media consumed and the range of involvement, from passive to active, as individuals select and interact with different forms of media. There have been a smattering of articles investigating media diets since then, primarily focusing on the violent or sexual content of media consumption.

A true media food pyramid with specific goals for how our children should be consuming information has yet to be described. However, if media is a diet, then early morning cartoons are probably the doughnuts and juice of television. My kids don’t start their mornings with a thousand calories of doughnuts and juice (although given the opportunity, I’m confident that my two and four year old would be happy to do just that), and I have no problem saying no to cookies and candy at the grocery store. We fill our cart with fruits and vegetables; yogurt and cheese; peanut butter and whole grain bread. At home we cook and eat together. This is all intentional. Healthy habits start young. Healthy eating is key to the development of a healthy body image  and to preventing obesity, heart disease  and diabetes. I don’t have to count my children’s calories because counting isn’t the goal. The goal is healthy choices.

In order to transfer the rules of the kitchen table to our coffee table effectively, I had to cut out the junk. No more morning cartoons. Even after late shifts in the Emergency Department. This was a direct threat to my hot coffee drinking preferences. But I did it. We woke up and went downstairs and started our day with no TV. And the kids? They protested vehemently. They cried. They yelled. They begged. They pouted. And then they played. The next few mornings were similar but the protests waned. Now we regularly start our days playing games that the kids make up. (My personal favorites include “Sharks and dinosaurs” and “Sitting in traffic.”)

Without the cartoons, we suddenly had an empty basket to fill with healthy media choices. I considered books and music to be the vegetables and fruits – always available and encouraged in our house. But what are healthy ways for young children to interact with television, computers and phones? I started by showing them how I could look up information on our computer. A map to illustrate how rivers go to the ocean to illustrate how rivers go to the ocean. An interactive website to lern the parts of a mushroom. I showed my four year old how to practice his letters in Microsoft Word and hit Ctrl+P. Our printer cartridge is out of red and orange right now, but he has never been more enthusiastic about sounding out his name.

The more I think about the media choices I make for them, the easier it is to manage their screen time. I no longer guiltily wonder if volcano videos at the museum or Face-timing with grandparents “count” as screen time. I don’t count calories and I don't count media minutes. We aren't close to exceeding our daily limits. And when my husband and I hire a sitter and go on a date, I don't hesitate to let the kids splurge on their favorite treats: pizza, popsicles and a cartoon movie.

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