It's hard to understand the world of early adolescents without considering the huge impact on their lives of the mass media. It competes with families, friends, schools and communities in its ability to shape young teens' interests, attitudes and values.
The mass media infiltrates their lives. Most young adolescents watch TV and movies, surf the Internet, exchange e-mails, listen to CDs and to radio stations that target them with music and commercials and read articles and ads in teen magazines.
First, look on the bright side. The new media technologies can be fun and exciting. Used wisely, they can also educate. Good TV programs can inform, good music can comfort and good movies can expand interests and unlock mysteries. Additionally, many forms of media are being used in classrooms today - computers, cable-equipped TVs and VCRs are all part of the landscape. Indeed, recent years have seen a commitment to connecting every classroom to the Internet and providing a reasonable number of computers to each classroom for student use. As a result, children need to be exposed to media, if only to learn how to use it.
The problem is that young adolescents often don't--or can't--distinguish between what's good in the media and what's bad. Some spend hours in front of the TV or plugged into earphones, passively taking in what they see and hear--violence, sex, profanities, gender, stereotyping and story lines and characters that are unrealistic. We know from research such as that conducted by George Comstock and Erica Sherrar that seeing too much TV violence appears to increase aggressive behavior in children and that regular viewing of violence makes violence less shocking and more acceptable.
Students who report watching the most TV have lower grades and lower test scores than do those who watch less TV. "In any classroom discussion I have, it is very apparent who's watching [a lot of] television and who's not," explains teacher Sherry Tipps. "For the kids who are not motivated in the classroom, mention TV and suddenly they perk up."
As young teens mature, high levels of TV-viewing, video-game playing and computer use take their toll. On average, American children spend far more time with the media than they do completing work for school. Seventh graders, for example, spend an average of 135 minutes each day watching TV and 57 minutes doing schoolwork.
Add to these negative psychological and academic effects, negative physical effects. Recent reports by the U.S. Surgeon General show that the number of overweight teens in American has increased greatly over the past two decades. Being overweight, in turn, can contribute to serious health problems, such as diabetes.
Negative influences also come from other media. For example, a growing number of ads in magazines, including some for harmful products such as alcohol and tobacco, are targeted at young adolescents.
Your child will benefit from your guidance in helping him to balance media-related activities with other activities such as reading, talking with family and spending time with friends. Here are some ways that you can help your child make good media choices:
Limit the amount of time your child spends viewing TV. It's impossible to protect your child entirely from the media. Banning TV entirely may only strengthen its appeal to her. However, some parents do make TV viewing off-limits during the school week, except for special programs that are agreed to ahead of time.
Remember, it's easier to restrict your child's poor media choices if you say no before she brings home the objectionable CDs or computer games or turns on the violent TV programs. Let your child know that you will monitor her media choices.
Monitor what your child watches and listens to. Former principal Carole Kennedy advises, "Don't just listen to how loud the music is, but to what the words are." Learn about the TV programs and movies that your child wants to watch, the computer games he wants to play and the music he wants to listen to. Knowing something about your child's interests will let you enter into his world and talk with more knowledge and force about his choices. Ask your young teen what bands or singers he likes. Then read about his favorites in magazines or newspapers or listen to their CDs or to the radio stations that play their music.
You can also watch or listen with your child. This allows you to spend time with him and to learn more about the programs, games and music that he likes. Talk with your child about what you are seeing and hearing.
Suggest TV programs that you want your child to watch. Encourage your child to watch TV programs about a variety of subjects--nature, travel, history, science, biography and news, as well as programs that entertain. News and history programs, for example, can encourage conversations about world issues, national and local politics, social problems and health concerns.
Talk with your child about the difference between facts and points of view. Young teens need to learn that not everything they hear or see is true. Let your child know that the TV show or movie he sees, the radio station or music he listens to and the magazine he reads may have a definite point of view. Talk with him about how the media can promote certain ideas or beliefs, which may different from those of your family. If your child wants to watch, listen to or read something that you believe is inappropriate, let him know exactly why you object.
Talk with your child about misleading ads. Young adolescents are especially vulnerable to advertising. Talk with your child about what ads are for--to sell products--and about how to judge whether the products the ads sell are right for her. If, for example, your daughter has short, blond, curly hair, ask her if she really thinks the shampoo that she wants you to spend $15 for will make her hair look like the long, black, straight hair on the model in the magazine ad.
Consider buying a V-chip for your TV or a filter for your computer. A V-chip is a computer chip that can detect program ratings--X, R, PG and so on and so block your child from watching pornographic, violent or other inappropriate TV channels. Similar chips or filters can prevent your child from visiting certain Web sites. Many of these can be obtained for free or for modest costs at your local electronics store.
Talk with your child about the risks of visiting computer chat rooms. Let your child know the dangers of "talking" online with strangers. There is software that can restrict children from chat rooms, even as they allow access to other content.
Talk with other parents. Discussing movies, TV shows, computer games and CDs with the parents of your child's friends and classmates can give you more strength to say no when she wants to see or hear something that think is inappropriate. You also can quickly find out that not everyone in the seventh grade is going to be allowed to see the latest R-rated movie in which bloody bodies are strewn across the screen.
Provide alternatives to media entertainment. According to teacher Bill Gangl, "If you give the kids enough activities, the TV goes away." Given the opportunity, many children would rather do than watch. A day at a miniature golf course or a visit with a friend may hold more appeal for your child than watching TV.
Model alternative forms of entertainment. A young teen whose parent is constantly in front of the TV or checking her e-mail over a quick dinner is being sent a definite message. Parents who turn off the TV or computer and engage in conversation, sports, games or other activities are showing alternatives to their children. An adolescent today may well wonder "what did you do before TV (or computers or video games)?" Show them!
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