When the Media Is the Parent

The media as family member

The Crucial Nature of Media Literacy

The average American child is exposed to media for eight or more hours per day.

Over the past few decades, we’ve seen the media permeate deeply into children’s lives. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation report sets the amount of media exposure for an average American child at eight hours per day, more time than with family or in school.

While parents may see this as simply entertainment, in fact children are learning from the media, about language, role models, and values. Once this insight about the media’s impact on our children’s emotional and moral development becomes clear, parents do well to learn about the favorite media creations that grip their children’s imaginations and stir them even when they’re not watching or listening.     

How to do this? When feasible, parents can watch their kids’ favorite shows with them, sidling up beside them any evening and quietly viewing. While doing so, parents can ask critical questions of themselves.

  • Who are the heroes and heroines of the shows? What are they like? What are their personal strengths? Their weaknesses?
  • How are sex and violence presented? Glamorously or otherwise?
  • How are topics like drugs, alcohol and deception depicted? As fun? As slick? As consequence-free?
  • How are relationships presented? Parent-child relations? Friendships? Romantic entanglements?

All this material the media forms into narratives. Storytelling, a technique as old as the Bible, Homer, primitive myths and fairy tales, has been traditionally used to instill moral values in those watching. So parents should note how the story unfurls its magical net over the child, how the child is drawn in, wrapped in a trance. During these rapt moments, values are subliminally planted in the child’s psyche.

The next step involves dialogue. How best to enter into discussion with a child? On the one hand, a parent’s moral outrage is likely to drive a wedge between parent and child. Dialogue is destroyed. On the other, a parent’s donning an adolescent persona and enthusing over a show might confuse a child into assuming that the values and messages flowing from the media are similar to the parent’s.

Rather, parents must guide the dialogue by referencing the questions outlined above, if with sensitivity and humility. By persevering in such discourse, parents can learn much that is creative and unique about their own child. In turn, the child can learn values more directly from the parent rather than uncritically from the hypnotic beauty flowing from favorite media artifacts.

George Drinka, M.D. is on the clinical faculty of the Oregon Health Sciences University.

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