Media and “The Meanest Mom in Town”

In the interest of full disclosure, I have the “only” seventh grader in “the whole town” who does not have a mobile phone. According to his friends I might be the “meanest mom in town”…

As Madeline Levine persuasively contended in her most recent post, an essential job of parenting in our (especially electronic) media-saturated society is teaching media literacy. In fact, I believe this so strongly that I have incorporated media literacy activities into my classroom curriculum for over a decade. However, in our home we have delayed some of the thornier issues surrounding media inflow. We have one family computer and one television. Both sit in a public area and their use is determined by our family rules.

We expect our children to learn how to become savvy media consumers and we know that the learning process will probably involve some mistakes. For our thirteen year-old, we know he is not quite ready to tackle some of the decisions that accompany texting, immediate picture uploading, or constant availability. As the news will support, even ostensibly responsible and media-conscious political leaders need some more guidance with appropriate versus inappropriate electronic media usage.

In addition to delaying the purchase of a phone, we have limited the amount of media friction in our house by using this time-honored parental technique: distraction. Our oldest is an enthusiastic soccer and baseball player, so we found camps where he could both volunteer and also earn a little money as a junior counselor. The benefits of his “job” are many. He is out of the house and running around for most of the day. He is tired and needs to be up early, so his sleep timing has remained similar to his school-year schedule. He is developing a wonderful sense of responsibility and community through meeting and caring for a pack of younger players. His confidence is growing as he gets immediate and authentic feedback about being a competent counselor. His job skills and reference pool are expanding and will serve as a base when he eventually applies for a ‘real’ job. And, of course, he has much less time to try to negotiate electronic media time.

Encouraging adolescents to do something else with their time is perhaps an obvious, but I think important point. Video games, cell phones, computers, satellite television, iPods, iPads … the opportunity for electronic entertainment is abundant. It is far more prevalent than when I was a teenager.  As a result parents need to be more vigilant and more proactive in encouraging their children to experience and participate in the world around them without the filter of a screen.

In the not very distant future, our oldest will likely get a phone and/or a computer. We will continue to have a family electronic media contract and will involve our kids in determining a baseline rate plan with responsibility for overage. We will build up to allowing computer use in a more private space and will require our children to “friend” us when they get a social media account. We will keep reading the books and watching the shows our children are consuming so we can foster their ability to question what they are absorbing. We will insist that all electronic devices spend the night in the kitchen to preserve a sleep-friendly* bedroom.

As we often say at Challenge Success, one size does not fit all. Given the personalities of our ten and four year-old children, we predict the timing for each will be different. We have no idea where technology and electronic media will be in the next few years (our 4 year old was born into an iPhone and Facebook world, not so our 10 year old) so we continue to gauge each new freedom as our children and the landscape changes.

For now, I might remain the “meanest mom in town” for
another year . . .

*First, we hope to prevent nighttime social activity. Second, we think the research demonstrating that using a bright screen can delay the natural production of Melatonin, the body’s sleep hormone, is pretty compelling.

Stephanie Rafanelli is both a school coach and a parent education facilitator for Challenge Success. Stephanie has been a middle school science and math teacher for nineteen years. In addition to almost two decades in the classroom, she has served as department chair, both academic and also grade level Dean, a parent and faculty educator, and a leader of curriculum reform. She has founded and run several summer and afterschool programs such as Sally Ride Science Camp for Girls and Menlo Summer Explorations. Stephanie is an educational consultant for multiple organizations. When she is not thinking about education, Stephanie is usually creating chaos with her three children.

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