You want your kids to have a healthy social life and do well in school. You want them to behave morally and have good values. For that, they need hefty doses of self-esteem and a strong sense of right and wrong. That’s what leads to respectful, responsible and appropriate relationships. But the media often model and encourage just the opposite. Reality TV shows — which routinely rank in the top 10 for preteen viewing — glamorize people who lie and ruthlessly stab each other in the back to win competitions. Email, IMs and cell phone text messaging have become new ways to cheat and bully. Rampant consumerism helps kids define who they are by what they own. And gender and racial stereotypes abound in video games, movies, TV shows and music, sending kids unhealthy messages about social norms.

Why you should care

Because the media is one all-encompassing, always-present, giant role model and “super-peer” for kids. Because kids spend more time absorbing the media’s messages as they get older than they do absorbing ours. Because what they see, hear and play models views and behavior that may conflict with our own sense of healthy values and conduct. Because the commercial nature of today’s media makes kids put enormous emphasis on what they own, leaving them vulnerable to more anxiety and depression. We have to ask what expectations the media is creating for our kids — and what counterbalancing messages we need to give them so they grow up with healthy social skills and attitudes.

Some facts you should know

  • The American Academy of Pediatrics lists the following as media-message “side effects:” poor school performance, hitting or pushing other kids often, aggressively talking back to adults, frequent nightmares.
  • One study showed that teens who “text” a lot are sadder and less assured. (Heavy use was defined as more than 90 calls or text messages a day.)
  • Cheating is on the rise. According to a Pew research study, 37% of teens say they believe that “too many” of their peers are using the Internet to cheat.
  • Race and gender stereotypes and inequalities still exist in media. Of characters on primetime TV, only 3% are Asian, 4% Latino and 16% African American, versus 74% Caucasian.
  • Of characters in top-selling video games, 64% are male, 17% are female and 19% aren’t even human (they’re aliens).
  • Kids know that they’re doing things with media that their parents wouldn’t like. Nearly one-third (29%) of students said their parent or guardian would disapprove if they knew what they were doing on the Internet and 64% of online teens say that most teens do things online that they wouldn’t want their parents to know about.

Common sense says

  • Media is full of teachable moments. Point out antisocial behavior and racial stereotyping, and discuss consequences. Point out words and behavior in popular TV shows, Web sites and music that are both positive and negative examples of what you do and don’t want your kids to model. What you say to your child is up to you, but have the discussion.
  • Pick age-appropriate media. Kids ages 2-7 should be exposed to media featuring good role moles, racial and gender diversity, and no stereotypes.
  • Embrace what they like. Rejecting your kids’ love of popular culture can close off avenues of communication. Embrace their world, but establish clear boundaries about what you find acceptable and appropriate.
  • Help teens balance their need for rebellion and self-expression with an appreciation of acceptable social action. Kids need to understand how to communicate and use media wisely and ethically. If they engage with media that includes antisocial behavior, make sure they understand the impact and potential consequences.
  • Let older kids see things you don’t agree with. But then discuss exactly what you don’t like with them. Since we won’t always be around, we need to make sure we instill critical-thinking skills in our kids.
  • Don’t shy away from pointing the finger. If your kids (or their schoolmates) are heavy media users and they demonstrate or are on the receiving end of any antisocial behavior or experience eating disorders, addictions, low school performance or depression, connect the dots — and disconnect the source.
  • No screen time for kids under 2. The American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t recommend TV for kids under 2. Kids grow and thrive best through personal interaction. And those “genius” TV shows, tapes and computer games? No research backs up their claims.

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