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Helping Children Understand Media Influence

When it comes to families and the media (i.e., television, movies, the internet), parents often feel like they are fighting a losing battle. I hear many parents tell me that their children learn about sex, profanity, and violence from watching things on television or from a movie. Sometimes, still, kids will tell me that they sneak and watch things that they know their parents would not allow. And, in the mix of it all, kids and parents lose sight of how significant an influence media has on them.

At times, parents will feel as if they need to monitor each and everything that their child consumes in the media. While I agree that developing healthy limits on how your child consumes media is definitely appropriate, I also think that the best way to help your child learn how to make better decisions about what they watch and how it influences them is to talk about it directly as opposed to outright restricting it. I have worked with families who have decided that social media, certain movies, and certain television shows are forbidden in their home. The unfortunate truth with this stance is that it works when parents are the main influence in their child’s lives, but this logic falls apart as children grow older and have access to other’s influences (like peers and access to media outside the home). What I want parents to focus on is not the amount of media that is consumed, but to focus on helping your child develop healthy ways to process and understand the media influence.

The influence for this article comes on the heels on a tragic event that recently occurred a month ago in when two 12 year-old girls stabbed their 12 year-old friend and blamed it on the Slender Man mythology. When I hear stories like this, I began to look at how families talk about media influence in their child’s lives and whether there is a space for the child to explore what they know to real, what they question as reality, and how to bridge the gap between the two. And, while I never solely blame the media or the parent for occurrences like this, I do like to talk to the families I work with to see how they are helping their families process.

Now, while events like this are tragic and probably confirm for parents why they should be more restrictive, let’s get back to what I know to be the best way to help your child develop the skills to analyze and talk about what they are consuming – just talk about. Seriously! Talking about what is seen on television, or what situations arise during a movie, is the most effective way to help a child understand the issue and make better decisions about the issue in the future. Here are some tips that can help you with having a conversation with your child:

  • Find out what you child consumes – Try to keep an open mind while watching a television show or a video online before judging
  • Talk about what is appropriate to watch – After watching the show or video, start a discussion on what is appropriate to watch in the house
  • Set up a time to watch things together – This can be the most effective tools because as you watch shows or videos with your child you can see in real time how your child is responding to the themes presented

Talking About Real Life Stories

Sometimes the events that occur – like the Slender Man stabbing or a school shooting – are not fictional. Sometimes the things that influence our children are real, and have real consequences. But, it has become an unspoken truth that children have to be protected at all costs, and talking to them about scary things should be avoided. However, let’s be honest, they will be exposed to unsettling, scary things as they get older and gain access to media that you do not permit. So, when things like this occur in real life, I highly recommend using the same tips above to start the conversation, and also adding these tips:

  • Ask if they know of the incident – Before just assuming that your child knows about the media coverage on a particular topic, ask if they have heard about it
  • Try not to judge – Listen to your child’s interpretation of the occurrence. They may be completely off in terms of the motives and understanding, but this is a good time to learn how your child processes real life events
  • Be honest about your feelings – The most effective way to help your child manage their feelings about a real life event is to be honest about how it made you feel. This will show your child that it is okay to be affected and could open a good discussion about how to process events as they occur in the media.

As you notice your child being more influenced by, or interested in media, try to help them understand how to process it by being honest, open, empathetic, and understanding. The shocking truth is that when we allow a space for children to process what they are seeing, we allow them to develop a healthy awareness about the media (whether fictional or real life) and how they allow it to influence their decisions and ideas.

Comments

I heard about that story with the 2 girls who stabbed their friend. It is absolutely tragic for everyone involved and shows that we really need to be watching what our children are seeing and reading and the impact that it is having on them.

I agree that this was a tragic story. I feel that as we monitor what are kids consume, we also help them learn to recognize how media affects them too! Thanks for your comment. -Mercedes

Media affects us in so many ways. Sometimes consciously and/or unconsciously. It is important to talk about how more mundane media influences us, like commercials, so that we can begin to recognize when more serious media affects us (like the news). Thanks for your comment. -Mercedes

I think that kids see media as harmless, and do not always understand the unconscious ways media can affect them. I know that a lot of kids do not see the correlation between watching violent movies and being more aggressive -- which is one of the most common effects I've seen with kids. Thanks for your comment.  -Mercedes

The Parenting Skill

Mercedes Samudio, LCSW is a family/parent coach who has been working with families for over 6 years helping them achieve results in parent-child bonding, decreasing power struggles, and developing effective discipline strategies that foster strong, nurturing relationships. She received her MSW from the University of Southern California and BA in Psychology from UCLA. You can read more about her parenting philosophy at theparentingskill.com.