“Just five minutes more. Please.”

I’m certain there isn’t a parent alive who hasn’t been begged, implored, cajoled or even threatened by their otherwise reasonable youngster when faced with the command to shut down the television, computer, video game, Facebook page, smart phone or tablet. Little kids throw tantrums, bigger kids have meltdowns and teens slam doors. It’s as if we’re cutting their digital umbilical cord without warning or anesthesia.

Almost all forms of media consumption are up, and the average child is spending over seven and a half hours a day with different forms of media (actually, closer to 11 hours a day if you separate out all of the multi-tasking.)1 This is more time than most kids spend in school or with their families and friends. Parents have every right to be concerned about the impact of such a disproportionately large amount of time spent on activities that we know so little about in terms of their potential long-term consequences. Are our kids getting smarter, duller, more social, less social, more informed, less informed?

The questions are being put out there by all organizations concerned with the well-being of children. But definitive answers are few and far between. Certainly, we know some things. Babies and toddlers shouldn’t watch TV, an hour a day of television is a reasonable amount of time for children, aggressive boys are made more aggressive by violent video games, heavy media users get lower grades than kids who are light users and also report being less happy. Most of the questions that have been answered are – how to say this? – really, really obvious. One would be hard pressed to find a parent who thinks that infants should have the TV on at all times or that boys who are aggressive would benefit from a steady diet of violence. The tough questions, however, are not yet answered. What does this much media and digital exposure do to kids’ cognitive skills, to their social relationships, to their minds?  

While it’s tempting to spend the rest of my space here setting out guidelines for your kid’s use of media, the reality is that every child is different, uses media differently and probably is affected somewhat differently by media. We are waiting for the hard science to come in. In the meantime, it’s probably a good idea to set limits on your children’s media use. Kids whose parents have rules about media (i.e. – no TV in the bedroom, or no texting at the dinner table) spend less time with media than kids with more media-lenient parents. Violent video games, particularly “first person shooter” games, are known to raise levels of aggression in boys and are particularly counterproductive for boys who already show high levels of aggression. Cyberbulling, which has exploded in recent years, is a particularly dangerous form of bullying as the anonymity of the bully only makes the bullied child feel intensely helpless, in addition to feeling humiliated.

So, we should know what our kids are doing during the time they spend with the media and digital devices. We should set limits. No child needs 7 1/2 hrs of digital time. It takes away from all of the known tasks of childhood like exploring different interests, being physically active and starting the process of developing a sense of self separate from the family. One hardly needs this psychologist to tell you what almost every parent already knows in his or her gut. That kids’ reliance on digital communication is not likely to enhance social skills, the formation of a sense of self or the development of coping skills – all things that need real-life experience.

But there is something that I do want to tell you, and it’s not about whether your child should watch a half hour or an hour of television a day (my guess is it doesn’t make much difference). I want to call your attention to something called media literacy; that is the ability to analyze and understand the less obvious messages that are imbedded in the media. Regardless of what the future holds in terms of ever changing devices and platforms and games, our children will be exposed to and involved in digital forms of media (and most likely forms we haven’t even imagined yet) for the rest of their lives. And yet, they are, as many of us are as well, profoundly ignorant of the fact that behind every message that is presented to them there is a world of perspective and agenda that is carefully hidden from sight. Whose point of view are they hearing? Why are they taking that point of view? Who stands to profit from this? The prevailing culture of our country is often buried in the stories that are chosen to be shown. Thin women, muscular men, stories of wealth and status all serve various industries that have things to sell.

Not teaching media literacy is akin to Gutenberg creating his press and then not teaching anyone how to read. Make sure that you spend enough time with your children, watching the movies they watch, the games they play, the sites they surf, so that you are able to point out and discuss exactly what is being served up. Encourage your children to construct their own media. Kids love a camera. Allowing them to participate in the act of creating also allows them to see how much thought, attention, and perspective goes into creating media. We are all concerned about our kid’s education and rightly so. The kinds of creativity, critical thinking, and flexibility that the 21st century global economy is sure to demand are often in short supply. Media literacy classes, with their emphasis on questions rather than answers, provide a terrific, important and involving forum for our kids to learn how to think, how to analyze, how to deconstruct and how to make sure they’re not being sold a bill of goods. Understanding the agenda of the media is a critical first step in being a thoughtful consumer and, most importantly, an informed citizen.   

1 Kaiser Family Foundation, Daily Media Use Among Children and Teens Up Dramatically From Five Years Ago, Jan. 2010

MLevine150wMadeline Levine, Ph.D., is a nationally known psychologist with over 25 years of experience as a clinician, consultant, and educator. Her New York Times best-selling book, The Price of Privilege, explores the reasons why teenagers from affluent families are experiencing epidemic rates of emotional problems. Her follow-up best-selling book, Teach Your Children Well, focuses on expanding our current narrow and shortsighted view of success and providing concrete strategies for parents. Her two previous books, Viewing Violence and See No Evil, both received critical acclaim. Dr. Levine began her career as an elementary and junior high school teacher in the South Bronx of New York before moving to California and earning her degrees in psychology. She has taught Child Development classes to graduate students at the University of California Medical Center / San Francisco. Dr. Levine lectures extensively to parent, school and business audiences both nationally and internationally.

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