Media and Risky Behaviors

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.