Toronto mother of three Angela Lecompte can tell what her nine-year-old daughter, Kathryn, has been watching on TV by how she interacts with the rest of the family. “When she’s been watching iCarly or Victorious, she’s lippy with us,” she says. “But if she starts fighting with her sisters, I know she’s probably been watching Full House.”
The fact that Kathryn is picking up language and behaviours from things she is seeing on TV—like a snarky tone or telling her sister, “I don’t want to share a room with you anymore!”—is totally normal, say the experts.
“We believe the media acts as a super-peer for kids,” explains Caroline Knorr of Common Sense Media, a US-based non-profit that helps kids and parents navigate the world of media and technology. “At age eight, kids start turning more toward their peers than their parents for cues on how to behave, how to dress and how to talk.”
Unfortunately, this “super-peer” doesn’t always model behaviour you’d like to see in your own kid. “A lot of the tween shows are just really sassy,” says Knorr. “They also do what we call ‘aging up.’ So they might be aimed at seven- or eight-year-olds, but they are bringing in behaviours of maybe 10- and 11-year-olds, because that’s what those younger kids aspire to be.”
If your kids use YouTube, you have even less control. “Kids aren’t just being exposed to television shows, which to some extent are vetted by TV production studios, but they’re getting exposed to a lot of videos, which really have different standards than broadcast TV,” says Knorr.
While it might seem like the only way to curb this influence is to confiscate all devices or ban shows outright, that’s not an ideal strategy, says Vancouver-based parenting coach Julie Romanowski. “As a parent, you can’t turn off every TV in the world,” she says. But what you can do is teach your kids to think critically about what they’re watching and how it relates to real life.
Matthew Johnson, director of education at MediaSmarts, a Canadian non-profit focused on media and digital literacy, recommends watching TV and videos with your kids. This gives you the opportunity to point out how things might play out differently in the real world. “You could observe that after a certain character delivers a zinger to an authority figure, the show then cuts to another scene or a commercial. So you can ask your child what they think the consequences of that zinger would be in real life. How would the teacher respond?”
It’s also a good idea to find a quiet moment to talk to your kid about what you’ve noticed in their behaviour. Romanowski suggests phrasing it like, “I’ve noticed you act this way and say these things, and it seems to me that it happens right when you’ve finished watching this certain show.” Kids this age don’t necessarily understand that some things on TV are not OK in real life, so explain that to them, and remind them of what you expect in your home. If, after you clearly set out your expectations, the behaviour continues, it would be fair to limit that show for a while, says Romanowski.
To help your kid find other options, Johnson suggests asking him what he likes about a program and then doing some research to find something with similar characteristics that’s more suitable. For example, if your kid stumbled upon a YouTuber who talks about sports—but in a not-totally-kid-appropriate way—you might hunt around for a kid-friendly sports show. The website Common Sense Media rates programs for things like positive role models, appropriate messages and language, and suggests alternative content that may jibe more with your family’s values and rules around language.
Keep in mind that your kids like viewing TV for the same reason you do—it’s an entertaining escape from reality. “I like watching Real Housewives because it’s crazy, extreme behaviour, but I would never behave that way,” says Knorr. “It’s a learning process to understand that a TV show is entertainment and that it portrays things in certain ways to attract people to the show.”
Did you know?
The American Academy of Pediatrics recently loosened its screen time guidelines. Previously, it suggested that kids of all ages watch a maximum of two hours of TV a day. Now, when it comes to kids ages six and up, it advises parents to to develop their own rules for what’s appropriate.
This article was originally published online in August 2017.