Dr. Dimitri Christakis helps parents help their kids use media in healthy ways.
Media and communications technology are expanding at an unprecedented rate, leaving many people — particularly parents — struggling over how to navigate an ever-changing sea of choices. Seattle Children’s Dimitri Christakis has devoted his career to investigating how media exposure impacts children and helping parents take control of their family’s media habits.
“My research is focused on developing pragmatic, actionable strategies for parents,” says Dr. Christakis, who directs the Seattle Children’s Research Institute’s Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development. “I like to think of it as a media diet. In much the same way we recognize that eating is essential to life but has to be done appropriately, media is very much a part of all of our lives — the real research agenda is to find out how to use it in healthy ways. For example, we ask parents to substitute quality programming for violent programming, much like they’d swap carrots for potato chips in their child’s lunch.”
Over the past 11 years, Christakis has published more than 25 media-related studies and co-authored a groundbreaking book, The Elephant in the Living Room: Make Television Work for Your Kids. His growing body of evidence serves as a national wake-up call for parents to become actively engaged in their children’s media intake.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all solution,” says research scientist Michelle Garrison, PhD, Christakis’ longtime collaborator. “When we’re working on an intervention, the protocol is designed with options to tailor it to the needs of the individual family. This is about giving parents the tools they need so they can make media decisions that are going to work best for their family.”
More screen time = more health and behavioral problems
Examining the issue from multiple angles, Christakis and Garrison have shown repeatedly that early TV exposure is associated with an array of child health and behavior problems. When screen time trumps parent-child interactions, it can cause delays in language development. Too much time spent viewing rapid-fire screen images can make real-time activities seem boring, causing attention problems when children enter the classroom. Christakis is especially concerned by the link between screen violence and aggressive behavior, a connection he believes to be as strong as cigarette smoking and lung cancer.
“Repeated exposure to even cartoon violence desensitizes children and increases the likelihood that they will behave violently in real life,” he says. “Parents are surprisingly poorly informed about this, and in our studies we’re working hard to educate them. Parents need to know TV and other media have real and powerful effects on their kids.”
This includes teen Internet use and what Christakis refers to as the “21st-century digital divide” between parents and their children. “Parents remain fairly clueless about what social-networking sites are,” he says. “They have to take it on themselves to learn what it’s all about and develop a plan for their children.”
Since he rarely gets tangible feedback about how his research affects people’s attitudes about media, Christakis was pleased with Disney’s decision in 2009 to change how it markets its Baby Einstein videos. Based largely on Christakis’ research findings, the company will no longer make educational claims on the videos, which are targeted at infants and young toddlers. He hopes that news of this decision will cause parents to consider how much, if any, television is healthy for their infants.
“This was the biggest triumph of the past year,” he says. “I feel I’m making a tangible difference in the lives of children if parents are reducing the amount of TV their babies watch.”
"Media is very much a part of our lives. The real research agenda is to find out how to use it in healthy ways." ~ Dr. Dimitri Christakis