Forget tobacco, this is the new threat to teen health

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have some good news and some bad news for parents. The good news is that your teen is significantly less likely to smoke than you were at her age. Teens today are also far less likely to get into physical fights than teens were 20 years ago.

texting-while-drivingThe bad news, according to a recent study, is that many teens aren’t paying attention behind the wheel. The CDC’s national survey found that ‘41 percent of [high school] students who had driven a car or other vehicle during the past 30 days reported texting or emailing while driving.’

Many teens (and adults!) think they can safely tap at their smartphone’s screen and still pay attention to the road. The statistics prove otherwise. Fatalities due to distracted driving rose by 28 percent between 2005 and 2008, and the age group most likely to be involved in fatal collisions was 16- to 29-year-olds. Male drivers are more than twice as likely to be involved in such accidents as are female drivers.

Government officials are clearly aware of the problem; 37 states and the District of Columbia have banned all cell phone use by novice drivers. But law enforcement is not the most influential authority in most teens’ lives. Parents are.

It’s a well-known fact in child and adolescent psychology that young people pay attention to the behavior modeled by grown-ups – parents, especially. It should come as no surprise, then, that a study by AT&T found that 41 percent of teens reported that their parents text while driving. Teens can sense this disconnect; 77 percent agreed with the statement, ‘adults say that kids should not text or e-mail while driving, but they do it themselves – all the time.’

80s_AntiDrugAdIf you’re the parent of a teen, or a child soon-to-be a teen, check your own driving habits. You may remember the old anti-drug TV ad (right) that concluded, ‘Parents who use drugs have children who use drugs.’ The ad is a bit heavy-handed, but it drives the point home (pun intended) about parents who text or e-mail behind the wheel.




How to watch a beer commercial with your child

How to watch a beer commercial with your childIt’s no secret that many kids see ads for alcohol – on TV, online, in magazines, and on billboards. One 2006 study suggests that the typical child sees about 23 alcohol ads per month. And the ads work; a study published the next year found that adolescents who saw alcohol ads were 50 percent more likely to be consuming alcohol a year later.

An obvious way to deal with this is not to let them see alcohol advertising. But this is mighty difficult to do, since many prime-time shows and cable networks popular with youth and adolescents show alcohol advertising. So how should parents handle their children’s exposure?

Watch it with them, and talk about it. According to a study in the Journal of Adolescent Health, parental guidance had a positive impact on a number of outcomes among young people age 9 – 17. So what should you say?

Ask them what they like about the ads. Be specific. Help them identify aspects of the commercial – attractive people, fun, music, bright colors, etc. – that attracts their attention.

Ask them what the ad is supposed to do, and who is supposed to see it. This helps them understand the purpose of advertising, which isn’t always clear to younger children. The second part helps them understand that ads target specific groups of people, and that they themselves might be in that group.

Ask them if they think the ads are realistic. This encourages kids to engage rationally with the commercial, and a rational, cognitive response can help counter the “I like it, it looks cool” reaction. Older kids might have heard about some of the negative consequences of overconsumption, and they might recognize that such things are left out of the ads.

The key is to engage kids and ask them questions about the ad, rather than merely telling them what you think about it. Asking questions encourages them to think critically about such media messages, and may help them make better decisions in the years to come.

Have you had any conversations with your kids about alcohol advertising?

(sources: E.W. Austin, M.-J. Chen, and J. W. Grube. (2006). How does alcohol advertising influence underage drinking? The role of desirability, identification and skepticism. Journal of Adolescent Health 38: 376–384;

How does your TV use influence your child’s use?

Can you estimate a typical American household's TV habits?“Parents who watch TV have children who watch TV.” (Anyone get this reference to the 1980s anti-drug PSAs?) A new study from the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania demonstrates that the amount of time a parent spends watching TV each day influences the amount her/his child spends doing the same.

This finding seems rather obvious, but the details of the study are interesting in what they reveal about media use in average U.S. households with children. Here are some highlights, presented Harper’s Index-style:

4: The number of hours a typical parent spends watching TV every day

2.8: The number of hours a typical child spends watching TV every day

70: Percentage of parents who have a television in their bedroom

46: Percentage of children who have a television in their bedroom

3: Average number of televisions sets in a home

23: The increase (in minutes) in a child’s daily viewing time per 1 hour increase in a parent’s daily viewing time

47: Minutes by which parents underestimate their adolescents’ daily viewing time

Another interesting finding is that a parent’s TV viewing time is more strongly associated with a child’s viewing time than are limitations placed on the amount the child could watch. In other words, they tend to do as you do, and not as you say.