Media Diet: Helping Your Child become a Healthy Learner
by Bob McCannon, Director of the New Mexico Media Literacy Project
Children now consume media the way they used to bond with caring adults. Many years of medical and education research suggest the following "recipe" or media "diet" for creating healthy, active, curious, capable young learners:
- Actively engage children in playing and reading. These are among the best ways to develop the learning skills of children.
- Talk with your children. Talking with caring adults may be the young brain's best developmental activity. Spend time relating; it is fun, and develops the emotional bonds that children must have.
- Provide better alternatives to TV. Hundreds of activities are healthier for the family. You should have more fun playing with your children than watching television. Activity lists are available from The New Mexico Media Literacy Project (NMMLP) and groups such as TV-Free America.
- Emphasize non-directed play. Let your child use materials at hand in new ways. Suggest that they experiment, create roles and practice skills. Though they may complain at first, you can encourage and convince children that such activities develop the important qualities of imagination and self-reliance. Such children will be able to entertain themselves and not be easily bored.
- Recognize that both good and bad always happen during media consumption. Media are complex, carefully planned and created products whose main purpose is to sell products and values through entertainment. Unfortunately, many negative effects can result if a child's media diet is not supervised with love and concern. NMMLP has documented thirty-four negative effects.
- Eliminate or develop strict limits for passive consumption of screens (TV, movies and video games - many of which are violent, stereotypical or mindlessly repetitive of low order cognition skills). Many programs and many ads between programs are simply not suitable for young children no matter how much the parent wants the child to see the program. Also, many young children cannot differentiate between fantasy and reality, even with parental discussion.
- Learn media techniques of manipulation. A great movie entertains because the filmmakers spend years learning techniques to influence us. So do advertisers. You can learn these techniques (tools) and teach them to your children. Children gain valuable skills that can be applied to many life situations.
- Learn media issues and discuss them when your child is old enough. For example, young children can benefit from a discussion of the advertising of toys, sugary cereals or caffeinated drinks. Older children and teens should learn about gender stereotypes, addictive compulsion, and sexual socialization. NMMLP emphasizes thirty-four important issues that parents should discuss with children and teens.
- Censor media that run counter to your values or are developmentally inappropriate. Explain to the child that one of the jobs of being a mommy or daddy is to supervise the family screen diet.
- Discuss the choices and plan carefully if and when you do watch screens with your children. Let them know why some programming is off limits.
- Watch television as a family. Then, discuss or (in media literacy lingo, deconstruct) these programs afterward. Do not let children have their own television in their room.
- Discussion is not a panacea. Many parents start out with the best intentions, but either forget to discuss the programs or discuss them so superficially that the child does not benefit. Also, remember that television is a powerful, multisensory teacher of values, and, even under the best circumstances, it is difficult for parents to be as persuasive.
- Do not be misled by Astroturf media literacy groups. Deconstruction and analysis of media is very important, but too much has been made of the value of family discussion by media literacy groups which are employed by large media companies who exaggerate the benefits of deconstruction. The last thing these Astroturf (as opposed to grassroots) groups want is for kids to watch less TV, and that is the most important part of media literacy - to evaluate and choose other, more beneficial mediums! Activities other than television are crucial to raising a child. Research on inadequate parental discussion recently led the American Academy of Pediatrics to change its TV recommendation for children under the age of three. The AAP now recommends that these youngest children watch no television at all.
- Always analyze screens. Teach NMMLP's 33 "tools" (or skills) of analysis. Apply them to all media. It is fun, and children develop valuable habits of mind.
- Insist that children be critical. Ask them questions. This involves the language centers of the neocortex (the heart of abstract cognition or reflective thinking). Television is a stranger, a powerful teacher who frequently teaches unhealthy lessons. Don't let passive acceptance become a habit and don't hesitate to throw the stranger out. Have a ready finger on the remote.
- Build your child's value system. Psychologists agree that children need to develop a "functional" value system to avoid mental illness. In order for a value system to be functional, the source of a child's values must be:
- able to protect the child and explain the values
- able to enforce the value system
- be there for the child often.
This is one of the parents' most important interactions with the child. Television cannot substitute for this relationship.
- Watch programs on tape. This makes two important activities possible. First, the program can be stopped for discussion. Second, you can fast forward through the commercials. This is important for young children who have trouble knowing fantasy from reality and older children who are still developing their value systems. Adults can help them interpret the world, providing knowledge and security.
- Avoid commercials. At the very least, hit the mute button. Advertisements are the most powerful and, frequently, the most dangerous of TV educators, hyping material dependence (including many addictions), instead of the internal strengths and skills that provide lasting satisfaction. Inappropriate ads frequently arrive during children's programming, the news (avoid all news with young children) and "family" time. Ads play much too fast for careful reflection and analysis. This is part of the basic ad strategy of emotional transfer which, for all practical purposes, is a subliminal process. Taping ads for analysis allows kids to see just how, for example, "love" from a cute friend or furry animal can be transferred to a fat-filled, expensive, sugary candy. In these ways, you can break the power of the rapid-fire stream of images that can develop habits of reactive thinking in children.
- Teach the value of reflective cognition instead of simplistic, reactive thinking. Teach children that reading lengthens attention span and television can shorten it. Teach children how ads are front-end loaded with emotional material to make the viewer "pay" attention and that pay attention can also mean "stop thinking." Children normally see 500,000 commercials by age 18, and attention deficit disorder experts suggest that such an onslaught of "stop thinking" is powerful conditioning that teaches children to react rather than reflect. Thus, parents can be an important influence in decreasing the distractibility of children.
- Investigate the "media attitudes" of baby-sitters, daycare centers and other caregivers. Avoid those who use television to keep children occupied.
- Most of all, engage your children. Read, talk and play with them. The research recommends it and common sense demands it. Give children a sense of pride in family discussions. Gradually make children aware of the consumerism, addictive lifestyles, stereotyping, simple solutions, and bogus values promoted by much television. This will translate into more accomplishment, healthier relationships, more personal involvement, better grades, and genuine self-esteem. don't let television displace that which is crucial for your child's development.
Originally published in the February 1997 edition of Parenting New Mexico, as well as the June 1997 issue of AAP News, the official newspaper of the American Academy of Pediatrics.