Written by Belinda Huang
The modern world is a whirlwind of images, advertising, messages, and screens. While this is becoming the status quo, there are still difficult consequences to face, especially for children. Kids are growing up more quickly through exposure to mature messages about gender, bodies, and status. There is also strong concern about the way media impacts physical and mental health, with increases in anxiety and depression in teenagers linked to our increasingly connected social landscape.
What can parents do to help? As our children learn their place in the world, there are small and big steps we can take to make sure they navigate it safely.
1. Start a conversation about what media is appropriate for your children. Let them know that you have certain rules about movies, TV, or songs for a reason. For example, research consensus is that violence in media increases aggressive behavior in children. As your children get older and more mature, you can renegotiate boundaries as needed.
2. Set a good example. If you don’t’ want your kids to be on their phones all the time, be thoughtful about how you use your phone. If you don’t want your kids sharing photos of themselves online, be aware of your own social media profile. Importantly, think about what information about your children you share online, especially if they are too young to consent. Once the information is out there, you can’t take it back.
3. Learn about content ratings together, but don’t rely on them. Ratings can be an unreliable way to know if something is right for your children. But it helps to know the difference between G, PG, and M. If your children know the difference too, they can help self-regulate what they’re watching and when the know what letters they’re supposed to stick with.
4. Encourage fitness and exercise as an antidote to mindlessly consuming media. Even if they don’t want to go outside, it’s crucial to build healthy habits from a young age so kids don’t get used to spending all their time on the computer. Also, this helps counteract the effect of media advertising for unhealthy products like sugary cereal, which is shown to contribute to childhood obesity.
5. Know the legal age requirements for popular social media apps and sites. For most sites, like Facebook and Twitter, the minimum age is 13. This is linked to child privacy laws that prevent companies from collecting data on minors. Some sites might also need parental consent for your kid to sign up. Make sure your child isn’t on social media ahead of their age, even if “everyone else is doing it.”
6. Keep an eye on your children’s media use. In this case, knowledge is power. You can’t help or guide if you don’t know what’s going on. This doesn’t mean you should track their internet searches or stalk their social media! Respect their privacy as much as possible. Ask questions to let children express their own concerns about the dangers of the internet, such as inappropriate sexual or violent content, online predators, identity theft, and cyberbullying.
7. How many screens do your children have? Count them up: TV in the bedroom, personal phone, a laptop or home computer, tablet, gaming devices, the list goes on. Be aware of how much time kids spend online and think about how you might limit or restrict their access if it becomes necessary. Studies show that youth spend an average of seven hours a day on their devices — which is sometimes more than they sleep!
8. Be open to talking about difficult subjects. If you want your children’s information to come from you, not the movies, then be willing to talk about topics like sex, violence, and war. You can express your values and beliefs while also allowing them to explore safely, grounded in facts and not learning from strangers on the internet.
Of course, there are many ways that media and screens can be a positive influence for our children. They provide opportunities to learn, experience new cultures and people, and connect to other people. It is up to parents to help our children experience the best of our digital world, and avoid the worst.