Kids and Media

Kids and the Media

It’s all about the ads. At least, that’s true for many viewers of the Super Bowl . . . those who don’t really care about the game, but can’t wait to see this year’s crop of advertisements. (Myself included!) At most Super Bowl parties I’ve been to, conversation is lively during game play, but hushed during commercial breaks.

This year, on the day after the Super Bowl, the Internet was abuzz with heated conversation about one particular ad: this Nationwide clip. The ad features a young boy talking about all the childhood milestones he’ll never experience – because he died in an accident. Nationwide’s intent was to bring awareness to the number of children who die each year as a result of preventable accidents.

Viewers, to put it mildly, were outraged. I read numerous articles, Facebook posts and tweets expressing anger that Nationwide would even consider airing this ad. In particular, parents seemed to be furious about having to “explain” the ad – and death itself – to their young children who saw it. In the hours after the ad aired, Nationwide’s own Twitter page was flooded with furious tweets from people who were upset by the ad. Yet I didn’t see many tweets or Facebook posts from people who were mad at Budweiser for using puppies to gain their kids’ attention while selling beer. I didn’t see anyone wondering, at least not publicly, why they had allowed their young children to even watch the Super Bowl – an event that is unquestionably targeted to adult audiences.

Media are everywhere; that’s undeniable. But too often, I hear those who influence children say things like, “Well, what can I do?” or “That’s just the way things are today.” But this simply isn’t true. We don’t have to take a backseat, letting the Federal Communications Commission or the Motion Picture Association of America decide what’s appropriate for our kids to see. There is an alternative to allowing our children to be passive consumers of media.

In my Media Effects on Children and Adolescents course here at Point, we spend an entire semester talking about both the harmful effects of media (particularly on things like aggressive behavior and body image) and the beneficial effects of media (think Sesame Street, which for decades has been bridging the gap for those children who don’t have access to preschool). Let’s be clear: media are not solely responsible for any one issue. There are always complicating and mitigating factors. But we do know that media play a role in some pretty negative outcomes. And that’s one of the things we can change.

Here are a few key recommendations for those who influence children – whether they are parents, teachers, ministers, coaches, babysitters, or even just those who love and help care for their friends’ and family members’ kids.

  1. Limit screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children have a limit of two hours of screen time per day (and no screen time at all until age two). Yet according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, children are spending an average of 7.5 hours per day with media – during which they’re consuming nearly 11 hours of content, due to multi-tasking. Does that number sound too high? Then think about households where the TV is always on in the background, or about kids who play on an iPad or smart phone all afternoon and evening. Kids have a lot of free time, and it doesn’t take much to get to 7.5 hours.How do we set limits? Use timers, suggest other play activities, and establish screen-free zones in the home and classroom. Maybe we can’t all cut media consumption to two hours, but we can at least cut back a little. Be creative, and encourage your kids to be! And while you’re at it, set an example. We can’t expect kids to understand why they should reduce screen time if we’re constantly glued to our own devices.
  2. Learn what’s going on developmentally. For example, very young kids sometimes have difficulty understanding the difference between media and reality. To them, if something looks real, it is Younger children also have a hard time understanding the persuasive intent of advertising; they tend to believe that advertisements are telling them the truth and are designed to be helpful. Those of us who care for children must consider how media look through their eyes.
  3. Be aware of what kids are watching. Take the TV out of the kids’ bedrooms. Pay attention to what they’re watching on Netflix or what games they’re playing on the iPad. Supervise use of the Internet. Studies have shown positive results when parents of younger children use restrictive mediation, or setting rules about which media children are and are not allowed to consume.
  4. Do your homework. Before allowing children to consume media, do some research as to whether the book, movie, television show, video game or song is appropriate for that child. Common Sense Media is a great source for reviews and age ratings. Speaking of ratings, it’s also important for parents, teachers, ministers and mentors to understand the ratings put forth by media industries. Did you know that thanks to “ratings creep,” violence that used to earn a movie a PG-13 rating might now only earn it a PG rating? A study of G-rated movies released over a 62-year period found that 100% of the films contained acts of violence. The MPAA’s ratings board consistently penalizes sex and language more than violence. But it’s not just movies! Television ratings are voluntary, confusing and inconsistent. Video game ratings have issues, too. And the music industry hasn’t done much beyond slapping an “explicit lyrics” label on the album. Those of us who care for children need to do some research before determining whether children should consume certain media.Not all kids are the same; some may be able to handle more mature content earlier than others. Whether you’re parenting, teaching or mentoring a child, it’s important to know that child’s personality and what he or she can handle.
  5. Encourage media literacy. From parents watching TV with their children at home, to teachers using a web-based game in the classroom, to an aunt or uncle taking nieces and nephews on a movie outing – we can all help teach children to be media literate. Consume media with kids, and talk to them about it afterward. Allow them to ask questions – even those that may make you a bit uncomfortable. Have those important conversations about issues like sex, alcohol /tobacco/drug use, and body image (something we could stand to do more of at church, as well as at home). This is part of active mediation, which is most effective with older children. Active mediation seeks to help young people deconstruct the media they’re consuming, and take an active role in understanding any potential impact.

Whether it’s a Super Bowl ad or a violent video game, we can always find something to be upset about when it comes to media and children. But sticking our heads in the sand won’t solve any problems. Rather than hiding from media, let’s engage. Thanks to technology, we can all be filmmakers, writers and musicians sharing content with the world. By educating ourselves, we can help children grow up to become both responsible consumers and producers of media.

Sarah Huxford
Sarah Huxford,  Assistant Professor of Communications