Just yesterday, a mother called me about her daughter Delia. Delia, age 8, was voted off of her classroom lunch table. Apparently all of her "friends" had been watching reality television shows and like all kids do - begin imitating what they watched and believed to be true. Unfortunately, it brought Delia to tears and shook her confidence to the core. It then opened a powerful dialogue among the parents, teachers and community. Is media helpful? If so, how much? Are parents moderating their children's media intake? Or do kids have free media rein?
The Age of Media
Children imitate what they see, hear and observe to be true. Seeing reality television shows suggests to children - this is reality. In actuality most of us don't eat bugs, try to lose weight on nationally syndicated shows or get our houses miraculously done over in days. But to most children under the age of eight (8) - television is reality. There is no fine line between what they see on the "boob tube" and what can happen everyday.
Both professionally and personally I understand this fact. My hero as a young child was Wonder Woman. At six years old, I stacked up all the picnic tables in the backyard and jumped off of them like the all-powerful, tiara wearing Linda Carter - except I fell and sprained my wrist. I just didn't see that coming.
Young children are particularly vulnerable to being influenced and not being able to separate reality from television. Often times this leads to children reenacting such images not unlike Delia's "friends" or my own escapade. Since children are very impressionable such larger than life media images seem not only real but serve as role models. So what as leading-edge adults do we do?
We get engaged. We train our "adult eye" to consume media for messages (i.e. stereotypes, unwanted behavior, unsavory role models) so that we can guide our children. And children not only want but also need our help in today's world of constantly streaming media from televisions in elevators to violent video games. Such messages can be scary and confusing for children.
Raising "media healthy" children means moderating a child's media input, guiding them to "make sense" of what they see and encouraging them to make positive media choices.
So to help take this from idea to action, here are some tips:
- Family Media Plan - It is my suggestion to create a clear and consistent family media plan that outlines when your children primarily watch television (if they do), what shows are permissible and what is off-limits (like most reality television) as well as create a forum for discussion. Parents need a place to express their concerns while children's voices need to be heard in a "safe space" to grow - family media plans are as much about compromise as co-creation.
Every family in actuality must create a program or habit that works for their home. Jennifer the SAHM has a "no television" rule since her children attend a Waldorf school where media is discouraged during the first 7 years and she has the opportunity to engage them in more active play (i.e. puzzles, playing the drums, drawing and nature walks).
Erick the Dad can't even imagine this rule in his household. Primarily his role as a television anchor requires that he digest many newspapers, radio programs and televisions shows during his kid's waking hours. Plus he said, my role as a parent is to help my children make smart choices and this includes the media.
- Parental Involvement - Studies suggest that parental involvement is a core factor in children understanding media or believing some of the "make believe" to be true. In my story my parents were not watching me - I was left to my 6 year old devices and luckily just sprained a wrist. Reports also reveal that kids also listen when parents interject into sitcoms (i.e. explaining not likely scenarios or not appropriate language usage).
My suggestion is to get into a "healthy habit" of watching an educational program together (i.e. like Olivia on Nickelodeon or Nature's Most Amazing Animals on Discovery Channel for older kids), discussing it, sharing your views and learning as partners. In addition, do consult intelligent places for guidance relative to child development and the media like: http://www.commonsensemedia.org/
- High-quality programs - Choosing high quality television, video, music and Internet is positive parenting. The Center for Media and Child Health (CMCH) has found positive outcomes of children watching media such as "civil participation, positive social behavior, tolerance, school readiness, knowledge acquisition, and positive self-image."
In other words, there are ways to effectively use media to educate and empower a child's healthy development.
Julia, age 8, is a former child client of mine that is going with her family to Europe for the first time this summer. She is thrilled. I happened to bump into her at the library and together we picked educational videos so she can begin learning about the culture, geography, history and experience of visiting France, Spain and London. Such small media steps have the potential for teaching smart media choices.
Media: Images of the Mind
Children and adults alike are greatly influenced by the pictures in their mind. Media from movies to comic books create such images that are digested like food. And since children don't always have the words for their feelings - they connect even more intensely to the pictures, people and influences surrounding them. So as sharp and savvy parents, scholars and adults alike it is up to each of us to cultivate "media healthy" manners and mindfully guide our youngest minds to develop a new childhood skill - media smarts.
© 2010 Maureen Healy
Author of 365 Perfect Things to Say to Your Kids
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Center on Media and Child Health
American Academy of Pediatrics
The Future of Children
Zero to Three