Inside Medicine: Teens and the media – it's a good thing

09/27/2012 12:00 AM

09/26/2012 5:34 PM

In some ways, our world is very different than it was a generation ago.

Victor Strasburger, an exceptional pediatrician, takes as an example today's adolescent – who, he notes, when asked about Amazon does not think of the river.

Teens spend huge amounts of time – more than about seven hours a day – with media. That is more time than they spend in school each day. In addition to this recreational media exposure, many schools are using media including the Internet and cellphones to keep students interested and motivated, meaning that total media exposure is even greater than the seven hours a day.

Is this a good thing?

You bet.

We know people have different learning styles, and technology can be used to tailor learning to each student's preferred style. Further, learning tools can be produced, updated or corrected in a fraction of the time required to publish a textbook, and they can be easily corrected or updated.

I see a different problem than too much media, and one that is more fundamental. It's time to rethink what we ask students to learn.

My digital devices provide me with drug doses, drug interactions, medical calculators and clinical decision tools. That means I don't need to memorize formulas and facts I easily forget and could get wrong. Instead, I can focus my learning on the application of those formulas and understand the theory behind them.

No matter where in the world I am – from California to Africa – I can always look up facts.

So, learning needs to be about far more than facts. It needs to focus on context, application and outcomes.

But not all learning is part of the formal curriculum. There are other ways messages creep into school.

Take for example exposure to product advertising in the classroom. A company called Channel One produces a short news segment for 8,000 middle and high schools across the nation, meaning it is seen in school by about 40 percent of teens. The idea is to expose students to news of the world.

The problem is that the the show is 20 percent commercials. For advertisers, this type of access to captive teens who are required to sit and listen must be a dream come true for makers of the junk foods, clothing and movies advertised.

All of this makes the need for great teachers all the more important. Teachers need to embrace technology to teach skills needed for lifelong learning. Preparing people to learn over the course of their entire life will, I hope, result in tomorrow's adults being more informed, educated and critical-thinking than we are.

Technology allows teachers to tailor education to specific learners. Some students may like to read books, while others prefer listening to audiobooks.

The important point is that literature is more accessible today than it has ever been before.

Mark Warschauer, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, claims "the music is not in the piano and, in the same way, the learning is not in the device."

Some skeptics suggest technology may have dangerous effects on the mind. They point to a recent study suggesting that when adolescents were deprived of their technology tools for a day or two, some exhibited symptoms similar to those suffered by people addicted to alcohol and drugs.

But wait, I bet when cavemen and cavewomen started drawing buffalo on the cave walls, elders thought they were spending too much time drawing silly pictures.

The same could be said for reading books. I remember classmates who spent all their free time reading. Their parents worried they were addicted to their books and were missing out on other important elements of life.

This brings us to health- education classes that have traditionally focused on AIDS, drugs, pregnancy and sexually transmitted illnesses. Health education's mission should be to train "health literate" consumers who can think and assess information.

Part of this is teaching around appropriate use of the media with attention to where media can become a health problem such as interfering with social life or sleep patterns, and cyber-ethics.

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