Media and Risky Behaviors

Article excerpt

Summary

Liliana Escobar-Chaves and Craig Anderson investigate two important trends among American youth and examine the extent to which the two trends might be related. First, the authors note that U.S. youth are spending increasing amounts of time using electronic media, with the average American youngster now spending one-third of each day with some form of electronic media. Second, the authors demonstrate that American adolescents are engaging in a number of unhealthful behaviors that impose huge societal costs.

Escobar-Chaves and Anderson detail the extent of five critical types of adolescent health risk behaviors identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention--obesity, smoking, drinking, sexual risk taking, and violence. Obesity, the authors note, has become an epidemic among America's young people. Cigarette smoking among adolescents is one of the ten leading health indicators of greatest government concern. Alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence are widespread problems among the nation's youth and are the source of the three leading causes of death among youth. More than 20 percent of American high school students have sexual intercourse for the first time before they reach the age of fourteen. And twelve- to twenty-year-olds perpetrated 28 percent of the single-offender and 41 percent of multiple-offender violent crimes in the United States in 2005.

Escobar-Chaves and Anderson present and evaluate research findings on the influence of electronic media on these five risk behaviors among adolescents. Researchers, they say, have found modest evidence that media consumption contributes to the problem of obesity, modest to strong evidence that it contributes to drinking and smoking, and strong evidence that it contributes to violence. Research has been insufficient to find links between heavy media exposure and early sexual initiation.

The authors note the need for more large-scale longitudinal studies that specifically examine the cumulative effects of electronic media on risky health behavior.

As children enter adolescence, many begin to engage in risky health behaviors. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified six critical types of adolescent health risk behaviors--physical inactivity, poor eating habits, smoking, alcohol use, sexual behaviors, and violence--that contribute to the leading causes of death and disability in the United States among adults and youth. Not only are these behaviors likely to compromise the present and future health of adolescents, they also are likely to cut short their education, impair their employment prospects, and even lead to crime, thus seriously putting at risk other aspects of their well-being, both as adolescents and adults. (1)

Adolescent health behaviors do not occur in isolation. They grow out of complex interactions at the individual, peer, family, school, community, and societal levels. Many observers have raised questions about whether one important source of the risk behaviors highlighted by the CDC could be adolescents' escalating exposure to electronic media. American youth aged eight to eighteen now spend an average of six to eight and a half hours a day using various forms of media, including television, videos, movies, radio, print media, computers and video games, and the Internet. (2)

Social science and health researchers have examined and written extensively about the possible connection between the high levels of media exposure in the United States and increased adolescent health risk behaviors. In this article, we present and evaluate the research findings on the links between adolescent exposure to electronic media and the risky behaviors cited by the CDC: obesity (which is in large part due to inactivity and consumption of high-calorie foods), smoking, alcohol use, early sexual initiation, and violence.

Modern science distinguishes three types of risk factors. …