Researchers at Queens University have found a strong association between computer and Internet use in adolescents and engagement in multiple-risk behaviours (MRB), including illicit drug use, drunkenness and unprotected sex.
“This research is based on social cognitive theory, which suggests that seeing people engaged in a behaviour is a way of learning that behaviour,” explains lead researcher Valerie Carson, a doctoral candidate in School of Kinesiology and Health Studies. “Since adolescents are exposed to considerable screen time—over 4.5 hours on average each day—they’re constantly seeing images of behaviours they can then potentially adopt.”
The researchers found that high computer use was associated with approximately 50 per cent increased engagement with a cluster of six MRB, including smoking, drunkenness, non-use of seatbelts, cannabis and illicit drug use, and unprotected sex. High television use was also associated with a modestly increased engagement in these MRB.
One explanation behind this finding is that a considerable amount of advertising that used to be shown on TV is now being shown on the Internet. In addition, computer usage by adolescents has increased considerably in recent years.
“TV and video games have more established protocols in terms of censorship, but Internet protocols aren’t as established,” says Ms Carson. “Parents can make use of programs that control access to the Internet, but adolescents in this age group are quite savvy about technology and the Internet. It’s possible that these types of controls aren’t effective in blocking all undesirable websites.”
This research, recently published in the Journal of Preventative Medicine, suggests that future studies should examine the specific content adolescents are being exposed to in order to help strengthen current screen time guidelines for youth.
While this study may have some merit in regards to adolescent behaviour, I find that I must add my own thoughts as a parent to its findings. Those of us who are intimately familiar with the video game industry know that this study will give those who blame video games and technology for many of society’s woes more fuel for their fires.
As a parent, I have never used parental controls to limit what my children saw on television, the internet or in video games when they were younger. Instead I used the oldest parental control of all time – conversation. I did not use spy ware to see where my children had gone while on the internet, and while I bought age-appropriate games for my kids when they of elementary school age, when they were nearing or in their teens, I was not quite as strict because I knew that through conversations with my children and in playing alongside them, they knew the difference of what was real and what was not. My kids may at times shock my parents with the things they do or say, but they aren’t bad children and they aren’t out emulating the behaviours they saw portrayed in media.
Just because I let my son watch Power Rangers when he was in elementary school did not mean that he was going to go out and beat on his class mates. He knew that what he saw on the screen were stunts, and that to try the same moves on a friend in real life would hurt his friend – and him, when his friend retaliated. Instead of banning him from watching the show like his school wanted all parents to do, I had a conversation with him and we compared Power Rangers with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. We talked about how getting hit with big sticks or shot by a ray gun would hurt, and how pretend can be fun, but hitting with sticks, hands or feet will hurt – and now that he’s all grown up, he every once in awhile puts on armour and hits other grown adults with swords made of rattan and wrapped in duct tape – and he knows that it can hurt, even with the armour.
There are those parents who will use the “well we had parental controls in place” as a scapegoat for not taking responsibility for the basics of parenting – interaction with their children. There are those bleeding heart Liberals who will blame television, advertising and video games for the errant behaviour of teens. We all know that new media is not the base cause of bad behaviour. It may be a catalyst, and in rare occasions the trigger, but seldom is it the root cause. Children need to know the difference between acceptable and non-acceptable behaviour, and as parents that is part of our contract with society, a responsibility we take on by becoming parents.
Children have been pushing the envelope of risky behaviour ever since the time when there was more than one child. It’s what children do, it’s what teenagers do, it’s what young adults do, and it’s even what some aged adults do when they check items off of their bucket lists. There also people who, no matter what you do or say, will do bad things. The important part of the equation is that as parents we give our children the tools they need to know the difference between right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, and how to live lawfully in a law and order society. Have we raised our children to have compassion for their fellow human beings and the other living things who share the planet with us? Have we raised them to have a social conscience? I can honestly answer yes to those questions, because I had and still have those conversations with my kids – and while I know they aren’t perfectly angelic examples of the modern child, we can at least talk about it.