Media Matters

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By Dr. Faith Rogow

When it comes to media and kids, the news can be confusing. One story warns about the troubling things that children learn from watching TV or playing video games while the next urges parents to return their “educational” baby videos to the producer, reporting with assurance that media isn’t really an effective teacher. Media can’t be both influential and not influential at the same time. Or can it?

Any parent who has been tempted to pass off their own offspring as the neighbor’s child because their toddler innocently repeated an embarrassing personal story in front of guests knows that children learn from everything that they encounter. That includes media, so all media are educational. The question is, what do kids learn?

Forget the generalizations. Media are not monolithic and children are not clones. Whether or not a particular form of media is beneficial for your child will depend, in part, on his or her personality, abilities, interests and developmental stage. Beyond that, the benefits of various media can be determined primarily by two things: time and content.

Screen Time
To develop in healthy ways, children need a daily balance of activities. They need to move and talk and interact with people. They need quiet time and opportunities to use their “outside voices.” And they need spaces where their imaginations rule and they can engage in free play (without media or adults guiding their actions except to keep them safe). A moderate amount of screen time (no more than 2-3 hours per day, less for infants and toddlers) can fit into that kind of well-balanced routine and can actually benefit a child more than having no media at all.

So why would the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that children under two stay away from the screen altogether? When the organization first issued that warning, it wasn’t based on research. Rather, it was based on members’ observations that adults were not spending enough time interacting with their babies. Leaders at the AAP reasoned that if families turned off the TV, parents would spend more quality time with their children. The problem is… there is no evidence that turning off the set automatically leads parents to spend more time with their children. In other words, if screen time in your home replaces conversations, physical activity, sleep — or any of the other things that growing children need — then it is a problem. But there is no evidence that a moderate amount of screen time as part of a balanced routine is in any way harmful and, depending on what’s on that screen, it may even be helpful.

When it comes to media effects, content is king. Far more important than the amount of time spent in front of the screen is what’s on that screen. There are dozens of useful clues you might use to determine what kind of media are appropriate for your child or offer genuine educational value. Unfortunately, the most accessible – TV ratings or marketing labels – are not among them. They can be convenient shortcuts, but they are highly unreliable. Just because something says that it is educational or age appropriate doesn’t mean that it is.

Instead, try asking three questions:
1. What is being repeated? In the world of media effects, repetition equals power. What is repeated the most is what will stick with your child. So it is much more important to pay attention to the kinds of messages in the programs that kids watch every day or the games that they play than to worry about the one time that they accidentally came across that steamy video your spouse gave you for Valentine’s Day five years ago.

2. Does what is being repeated the most reinforce the values I want to teach my child? Would you be comfortable with your child repeating what they heard or copying what they saw, especially keeping in mind that kids don’t have the same sense of context that you do? In a young child’s world, the wrestling move that was fun on screen might also be fun to try with the neighbor’s pit bull. And that snappy comeback got laughs on TV, so why not try it out on the religious schoolteacher? Media that contradict the values you cherish make your job as a parent harder. So give your toddlers or preschoolers media choices, but only from options that you know won’t undermine the life lessons that you hope to impart.

3. What is my child’s behavior like after screen time? Even a great educational video isn’t of much value if, after viewing, your child is bouncing off the walls. Like adults, children have varying responses and tastes. To find the right media for your kids, pay attention to their moods and behavior after viewing. The short term gain of having a calm, quiet child while they view or play a game may not be worth the long term effect if your child subsequently has nightmares, is cranky, fights with siblings, or is generally uncooperative.

Today there are a myriad of rich and sophisticated media resources that use children’s natural sense of curiosity as a springboard for learning. They make children feel good about themselves “just the way they are” (as Fred Rogers would have put it) and hold out the world as a potentially wondrous place, full of opportunities, challenges and exciting new things to explore and master. If you want to find that kind of media, pay attention to your children’s responses. Their mood and behavior will tell you much of what you need to know.

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