Media and Kids - Printable version
Today’s media influence all of our lives, but particularly the lives of children. With American children now spending more time on average consuming media than they spend in school, we must empower kids and the people who care about them with the information they need to be good and active media consumers. This guide offers 10 essentials (concepts and actions) that you need to make smarter media choices for and with the kids in your life.
Kids learn constantly - think of it as their job. Starting at birth, they
use their senses to understand the world around them, which includes a wide
array of media. Most parents appreciate the effectiveness and value of media
products designed to teach young children basic educational and social skills.
However, we must all appreciate that the process of learning from media
continues throughout our lives, even from media products designed to sell,
entertain, or inform. Parents need to recognize that children often lack
the life experiences that provide context required to understand media,
and consequently, children may experience media very differently than their
parents. For example, character transformations (like a person changing
into another person or creature) might terrify a child, while an adult sees
this as obvious fantasy. Adults should also realize that animation does
not necessarily mean appropriate content for children, and that even the
nightly news can scare young children and give the impression of a mean
and scary world.
Some people make a distinction between entertainment and education when
it comes to media – but all media have the power to teach. The current
complicated media environment includes products that kids experience at
home (television and radio programs and commercials, recorded music and
movies, video and computer games, and the Internet), away from home (movies,
popular concerts, and sporting events), and all around them (printed magazines,
advertisements, books, portable media players, etc.). The convergence of
media also adds complexity, with the growing popularity of multiplayer online
computer games, movies marketed simultaneously with electronic games on
web sites featuring popular hit songs, and so on. All media deliver messages;
some positive messages and others negative or mixed messages. We all need
to recognize and think about the messages coming in. What do we take away
from a program or song that suggests that using violence solves a problem?
What about the more subtle messages like when a popular young “cool”
actor smokes or uses illegal drugs on screen? Once you see every media product
as a potential teacher, you will want to ask the following questions:
Whether you like the current media ratings systems or not, they offer an important tool to help parents make good media choices for and with their children. Currently several different industry rating boards separately rate media using an "alphabet soup" of age-based rating categories, and some also provide content information. Even if you find the ratings confusing, you need to know the rating boards and their systems and instantly recognize the rating symbols used to label media products:
The industry provides ratings to help inform kids and parents about individual
media products prior to purchase. However, parents must use them. Parents
also must manage any conflicts that arise as media convergence erases the
lines between product types. For example, parents may need to deal with
apparent conflicts in the ratings (an R-rated movie with a T-rated video
game for the same co-marketed theme). Since parents will always maintain
responsibility for the media in their homes, they must stay tuned in and
speak up when they find something unexpected.
No matter how good you are about checking ratings, sometimes the content
of a media product will surprise you. The current systems lack standards
for applying rating reasons to movies and content descriptors for video
games, and apply different requirements for content designations that depend
on the rating for television programs. Music played on the radio may represent
a "clean" version that differs from what you might find in stores.
On top of these challenges, all ratings will always represent subjective
judgments, both by the rating board and by you. Given the subjectivity you
should expect some disagreement, particularly about media products that
seem on the boundary between two different age-based ratings. The key for
parents is to make sure that they stay calibrated with the current media
ratings and the actual content of media products by experiencing the content
directly with their kids to the extent possible. As media evolve, expect
the ratings to change. It might help to apply your own standardized definitions
for content, like the following:
6. Consume media actively
Consuming media is a choice, and with this
choice comes responsibility. Remarkably, in many homes media come into the
living room or bedroom "under the radar," or without parents paying
attention to the media’s power to teach. Make it a policy and practice
to consume all media products actively. Watch, play, and/or listen to media
products with your kids and pay close attention to your child’s experience.
Make sure that the sound level is not too high if you can control it, or
give your kids earplugs they can use to cut the sound by 10-20 decibels
when the volume control is out of your hands. Teach kids to close their
eyes and tune out scary moments. Media present glimpses of the real world,
including the full spectrum of the good and bad. They also offer imaginary
worlds and virtual realities, which some children may find difficult to
put into context. Psychological studies suggest that media experiences can
simulate real experiences, and consequently they can inspire responses.
For example, consuming media violence may desensitize kids when it comes
to real violence, glamorized body images in the media may create expectations
about attractiveness, and some depictions of sexual acts or substance use
in the media may normalize risky behaviors or illegal activities. While
adults can draw on life experiences when interpreting media, remember that
a brief media experience may represent the sole basis for a child’s
perception of an experience.
8. Teach kids to deconstruct media
Go a step beyond just talking with kids about media and teach them to deconstruct media. Media deconstruction - analyzing media and taking it apart to look carefully at its components - helps to empower kids so that they control the media instead of the media controlling them. Taking media apart basically involves answering questions like the following for any media product:
• Who made this media product?
If you want to look more closely, then you can also analyze the content
of media products in great detail and measure the amount of violence, types
of weapons used, numbers of injuries and deaths, times you hear a specific
word, and depictions of substances like tobacco, alcohol, and drugs. Simply
asking questions about how media make your children think and feel can empower
them to sort out healthy media messages from unhealthy ones. When media
fail to depict the consequences of actions, then adults must help children
Media offer so many choices and their constant availability makes them
extremely attractive to children looking for things to do. However, although
a little bit of well-chosen media exposure offers wonderful adventures and
memorable experiences, too much media exposure or poorly-selected media
may put children at risk. Public health researchers consistently find a
strong correlation between overweight children and increased television
consumption, and studies suggest that girls who frequently read popular
fashion magazines experience more unhappiness about their body weight and
shape than girls who don’t frequently read them. Many parents don’t
realize that pediatricians and the American
Academy of Pediatrics recommend limiting media consumption for kids,
so talk to your family doctor about exposure to the media and its potential
impact on your child. If you’re not sure how much media your family
consumes, then keep a media diary for a week to track it. Get into the habit
of turning off media products when no one is actively consuming them.
Our current system of media self-regulation depends on everyone making responsible choices.
Protecting children, our freedom to create, and media self-regulation depend
on active and responsible media consumers and producers. Do your part. Action!
© 2006 Kimberly M. Thompson. Professor Thompson gratefully acknowledges the ExxonMobil Foundation for providing a grant to the Kids Risk Project that supported publication of this on-line guide.