Advertisement
Family life

Considering Media Consumption as a Parenting Tool

Media and technology are forever changing and it is hard to keep up as a parent. Looking back on my childhood, I wonder what could have been different and how parenting in regards to media should look in the future.

Considering Media Consumption as a Parenting Tool

iStock

North American culture has made big steps in implementing screens and media into our daily lives. Many adults today largely communicate online, especially after businesses have seen the benefits of employees working from home. Deciding how to raise your child in a world that continually prioritizes familiarity with technology has become a pressing topic. As someone who was in elementary school when Instagram was first created, I believe my generation began many conversations about how children should be raised in the information age.

Also, as someone with a passion for media and the digital arts in both my research and writing, I often look back on my childhood and think that maybe I should have been exposed and introduced to more in my younger years. I took some time to contemplate and talk to experts about how media impacted my life and how to be safe when introducing media to future generations.

When I think back on my childhood, the things I remember are not what many would expect. My parents were hesitant to bring me to Disney World when I was seven years old because “he’s too young; he won’t remember it.” Unfortunately, the things I do remember were my brother and I getting hand, foot and mouth disease and being so scared by the haunted mansion we had to run to the fire exits. What I remember most about my childhood was not the vacations, despite my parents' hopes, but the entertainment I consumed and the inspiration I felt in response.

Fostering creativity through media consumption

Watching old shorts of The Three Stooges when I was young had an unexpected influence on me. The very first short The Three Stooges ever produced was called “The Woman Haters Club,” and I distinctly remember handing in a comic-strip recreation of that episode for school. I still wonder what my teacher’s reaction was. Writing comics was something I did throughout grade school. I would share them with my friends during recess, and they are still around my house to this day.

I would also put on plays during class time. I asked my teacher’s permission, taped an audition form to the whiteboard, wrote a screenplay and printed several copies. It's funny because I don’t believe we even had rehearsals; my friends would perform without reading the script beforehand. The Three Stooges was “adult comedy,” but the physical hijinks of the group’s shorts had a childish glee behind them. There is definitely a fine line when it comes to knowing when to show your child different types of media.

All the fun I had and the creativity I displayed in my childhood can be tied back to that Three Stooges DVD I received as a Christmas present. You can never be sure what sets off your child's imagination. Presents were a big one for me. If something had to do with a cultural phenomenon I was unaware of, I instantly wanted to understand all of it. Other examples include being gifted the video game Lego Star Wars on the Wii and playing Beatles Rockband in my friend's basement.

The Beatles would eventually become another comic series I developed. Even though Star Wars was sometimes violent for a kid's game, or The Beatles were a bit dated, the scope of the ideas and themes they exhibited sent my brain in all kinds of directions.

children reacting to the tv in a surprised or scared expression iStock

What is age-appropriate media?

Advertisement

Cristine Legare, a professor of psychology at The University of Texas at Austin and Templeton Religion Trust grantee says that mixed-age experiences with media are great for kids because there can be benefits of being exposed to things just outside of their range of preparedness. She responded to my story of the Three Stooges and pointed out that physical comedy has been present in children's media ever since its inception. Looney Tunes would be an example, where characters would experience fatal acts of violence and then turn up unscathed in the next episode or even seconds later.

It is beneficial for parents to think about where their child's preparedness lands and what could be widely outside of what they are prepared for, which can have lasting negative implications. "I can't imagine what would be helpful about showing media to children when they don't have the emotional experience to process it," says Legare.

Since my education at university focused on film, many of my peers have had a much longer relationship with watching movies than I have. I remember being a guest on a podcast with my friend as we discussed a movie, and he would have a much deeper understanding of film history because he was introduced to things at a younger age, even if they may have been deemed inappropriate for a child.

My friend and I enjoy horror movies in our 20s today, but he was introduced to them in his childhood, and I started around high school. These memories of watching films for the first time spur our creativity as writers and critical thinkers, so wouldn't an earlier introduction help?

Knowing your child's limitations and slowly trying to cater to their tastes is the right solution. Watch a movie with them. Have a conversation with them afterwards. Ask them if some themes were too intense, and find ways to reassure them. Not only do these conversations expand your child's frame of reference, but they also show them that you are attentive to their feelings and your relationship.

Advertisement

Introducing new media to a constantly changing mind that aggressively wants to learn daily is a gift you can give your child. While applying the boundaries and rules that are right for your family, media does not need to be stigmatized; instead, it can be seen as a tool for the healthy development of interests and relationships.

mother shielding her child's eyes from the tv iStock

Online interaction and social media

In high school, I made friends easily by getting involved with free fantasy sports leagues and mobile games. Being involved in social groups that bond over apps, video games, or other media is much more than just picking it up and playing it. It stems from a longer relationship, spending time with that kind of media language. Fantasy sports was something I seamlessly moved into because my parents signed me up for hockey early, and I had enough knowledge of the sport to dominate in our annual leagues.

What was different in high school compared to elementary was that instead of meeting friends in person because of my media knowledge, my experience was the reverse. My parents introduced me to something that promoted exercise and teamwork through sports, and that helped me easily translate those experiences in the digital space with like-minded people.

At that point, phones were allowed in high school, while almost nobody had them in elementary school. However, that has changed now with the younger generation. The autonomy that a phone presented during the transitionary period into adolescence in high school made media and screens the new trend that everyone was hooked on. It is not until the next technological innovation will this trend change. Regardless of when kids get their first tablet or phone, balancing real-world experience with introspective creativity through media is the key to establishing and keeping relationships.

Legare says that when considering the negative connotations of screen time, it is less about consumption and more about the trade-offs we all make when on our phones. "Children need a lot of social interaction. If much of their time is spent interacting with a flat surface and not interacting with their families or exploring 'roly-polies,' pond life and climbing a tree, it may impact their development."

Advertisement

No two children are the same, and different circumstances call for different screen time methods to be put in place. There is not a single rule for everyone. As for myself, I knew that screen time during lunch breaks at school was beneficial in being closer to the people around me. My friends would have long conversations about fantasy league trades that transcended the screen and in-person divide, instead finding themselves somewhere in the middle. I knew how my screen time impacted my real-life relationships and vice-versa.

Choosing quality over quantity

To Legare, the focus on screen time and overconsumption is misplaced. What your child is watching should be more important than how much of it. "Saying that your child should not watch any screens at all is unhelpful," she says. If your child's favourite show is educational, well-made, and interactive, it is a big component of deciding if it is meaningful.

One example would be comparing animated TV shows you would find on your local network with quick editing and lots of colours to Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Mr. Rogers encourages play and interactivity with his program while providing a slow, meditative tone, while many other mainstream shows emphasize overstimulation to hold a child's attention span. Mr. Roger's show aims to teach children life lessons, while other shows want children to stick to their screens as long as possible. Rebecca Wallace, a psychologist at Children's Hospital New Orleans, says that media designed to catch attention, such as YouTube's autoplay feature, do not make your child addicted to that kind of media, but they are instead responding appropriately to how the technology is designed to work.

Academic and professional scenarios

Today, as I have recently completed my undergraduate degree and find myself in the middle of a master's degree, I am always in conversation with my peers about media. It is not only the "junk food" media that is criticized in the news, like violent video games, but it is small things like knowing how to tweet or keeping up with reading articles daily. Most foundational skills that help you get jobs and establish a platform are found online.

I recommend getting your child to write a private blog if they are interested in media. I only started consistently writing online around my second year of university. Many journalists start writing in high school or even earlier. In previous generations, having any digital footprint at all at a young age was a bad thing. Today, it has the potential to be seen as an asset. Introducing your child to ways they could have an online presence safely is a beneficial way for them to explore their independence and passions.

Advertisement

Wallace says that being authentic online is an important lesson for your child. She recommends talking with your child about online ethics around middle school age when they are mature enough to understand the online space properly. "Teaching your children that there are consequences online is important. If you're not going to call someone names or bully them in person, do not do it online," says Wallace. Another form of teaching online etiquette is being a model for your children and asking them for consent when posting a family picture online.

a group of friends on their phones outside iStock

Looking forward

New technology, such as apps and tablets, are being introduced at breakneck speed. "The consequences of new technology are that they are very poorly understood because they're so recent," says Legare. She is specifically intrigued by the future conversations that should be had regarding virtual reality. "Young children are developing a sense of reality and what is possible. Virtual reality can violate much of what is possible in the real world. What happens to a child's developing sense of reality when they're exposed to the possibility of something fundamentally different?"

Wallace knows a parent who gets their child to research and present why they want a new social media app. "It shows that the child is developmentally able to use this new media, and it allows the child and parent to look at it together," she says. Parents should always look into new technology themselves and not take their child's word; there could be a dark side that neither you nor your child knows about. It is almost impossible to completely lock your child out of a growing trend because they might hear about it from someone else. It is always best to have a conversation early.

As media gets continually complicated when deciding what is best for your child, it is always advisable to have conversations and trust your instincts. There is no correct way to parent, and science still needs to catch up to new technologies and their consequences. Nobody knows your child better than you.

Experts:

  • Cristine Legare, PhD, Professor, Department of Psychology & Director of the Center for Applied Cognitive Science at The University of Texas at Austin
  • Rebecca M. Wallace, PsyD, a psychologist with Children's Hospital New Orleans
This article was originally published on May 24, 2024

Weekly Newsletter

Keep up with your baby's development, get the latest parenting content and receive special offers from our partners

I understand that I may withdraw my consent at any time.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Andrew is a master's student at Toronto Metropolitan University. His work has been published in University of Toronto's student newspaper, The Mike. He specializes in arts and culture writing. He lives in Toronto where he enjoys watching movies and spending time with friends.

Advertisement
Advertisement