In an attempt to offer ideas on how parents can cope with a child’s over-immersion in the media and the emergence of possible ill effects, I suggest that parents start at the beginning. If they see glimmers of reasons for concern, they must face the issues squarely, not deny or rationalize them away.
First, parents would do well to collect solid data. Over a two-week time span, concerned parents should track the number of hours per week their child engages with the media. How much time does the child spend per week on reading and studying? How much time does the child expend per week interacting with parents? And finally, how often in the course of the two-week span does the child engage in struggles with the parents over the use of media devices? That is, do conflicts frequently erupt over the child’s watching a movie or playing a video game rather than doing homework? Or getting lost in Facebook rather than coming for a family meal?
Next, parents should focus on whether their child is developing emotional and behavioral problems often linked to over-immersion in the media. Let me name seven:
• Bullying and violence;
• Overly sexualized behaviors at an early age;
• Avoidance of contact with peers and family;
• Poor academic performance, including avoidance of school work;
• And finally, over-eating and obesity.
If one or more of these problems is present, and if the media has taken control of broad swaths of the child’s free time, then the media’s place in the child’s life is best seen as a risk factor in worsening a problem, just as high cholesterol can lead to heart disease, or smoking can enhance the likelihood of lung cancer.
But the media is more than a risk factor. Its myriad of creations can serve as entertainers, friends, role models and even surrogate parents. Hence real parents need to look at themselves. They should examine certain aspects of their family life that can exacerbate their child’s problems. A conflicted divorce, a missing or mentally ill parent, marital infidelity, and financial instability all have impact on a child’s well being. All these family problems and others complicate a child’s inner life. Often family conflicts drive the child toward seeing the media as a distraction, an escape. In the world of the media, sex, violence, and alcohol consumption are often glamorized in a manner that lead the attentive child to see them as solutions to inner conflict. So can begin a downward spiral for the child into impulsive choices and self-destructive actions.
With these family and child surveys complete, parents may be ready to take a number of critical steps in the direction of change. Just as the emergence of certain psychological and behavioral problems related to over-involvement with the media involve a complex interaction of one problem with another, of a family crisis with a child’s inner turmoil, of inner pain leading to identification with an attractive if morally compromised media character, so too resolving such problems requires painful realizations but also rewarding work on the part of both child and parents. A family that has unwittingly allowed mechanical interlopers—TVs, videogames, and social media—to harm family life must work hard to change this drift and concurrently strive to heal certain dysfunctional family trends.