Our children are exposed to media with a frequency that can quickly become overwhelming. Reports vary on exactly how much time the average U.S. child spends in front of a screen and taking in media overall, but they tend to agree on the fact that it’s too much. This is particularly true for teens and tweens whose media use, on average, is second only to time spent sleeping. What can parents do to turn this tide and support their children’s mental and physical health?
It’s important to note that media of various forms are valuable in helping our children learn and mature, but they should be coupled with active parental involvement. Here are some ideas and recommendations to help parents with this process.
While most people want to be aware of current events, the topics covered in today’s news can be troubling for adults and children alike. Be aware of what’s on the television or radio, even if you think your child isn’t paying attention, and listen for cues from the anchors about upcoming information that may be particularly sensitive.
How much exposure is appropriate has a lot to do with a child’s age and what they are ready to handle. Watch the news with your kids when you feel they’re ready. Ask them what they think about what they’re seeing. Provide answers to their questions without delving too far into details, then wait and assess their reaction. If they appear shocked, this is a good sign that they may not be ready for what they’re seeing. If they have further questions, help them process the information to a point that you feel they’re ready to handle.
When children are traumatized, they will typically react in one of two ways. They may avoid a particular topic completely, or watch it over and over so they can master it. Every time they watch the story, they’re reliving the events. If you feel your child is ready to handle troubling information on the news, view it with them once, allow time for dialogue and then help them to move on to other activities.
New TV shows are popping up all the time, which can make it difficult for parents to stay on top of what’s appropriate and what’s not. The good news is that all television programs are rated. Common Sense Media is a great resource for ratings on television shows as well as movies, books, games and more.
Children can overestimate their risk of being in danger when they see scary things on television. Although ratings provide a helpful guideline, think in terms of what is appropriate for your particular child. Maturity level and personal history, especially if it involves trauma, should be taken into account when determining if the child should view a program. Make it a family affair and watch new shows together to gauge whether or not they’re appropriate. Consider using parental controls to block specific channels or programs to help keep a handle on your child’s exposure to mature content.
Social media can be a great way to stay in touch with friends and family, meet new friends with similar interests and express individual identity. It also comes with a great deal of risk, especially for children and adolescents who may not fully understand the long-term consequences of their online actions.
People no longer have to look their peers in the eye, or even dial the phone, to make ridicules or threats. Parents have an important obligation to teach children about good citizenship and that the ‘Golden Rule’ extends to the social media space.
Remind your children that words and pictures posted online can be viewed by anyone at any time. They need to stop and think about whether they may regret what they’re about to post, be it tomorrow or five years from now when they’re applying for jobs.
Privacy is another vital topic when it comes to social media. Don’t use full names and never give away contact information such as phone numbers and addresses. Profiles should be kept strictly private so only friends can see posts and photos, which will require updating the default settings when creating an account. View additional social media safety tips.
Social media can have significant impact on our children’s mental health. Adolescents should understand that their parents can and will monitor their accounts to ensure safety, security and appropriate use.
It’s a natural part of adolescence to try to imitate what role models are doing and saying. Be aware of how your child’s preferred music references drugs, alcohol, violence, suicide, devaluation of women and other sensitive topics. Some children really like the beat of their favorite songs and don’t pay much attention to the lyrics. Others might listen to sad or angry music to echo their feelings and wash them away. In other cases, music will magnify the negative feelings children are having.
Have open conversations with your child without criticizing their music choices. Follow up regularly to understand if music is an outlet for creativity and emotion, or intensifying their feelings of anger, sadness or despair.
What’s a parent to do?
Though children grow more independent with each passing day, they still require oversight and look to adults for guidelines and boundaries. These streamlined tips offer a starting point:
- Parents are in control of when and how devices are used. Families should have media-free zones, which may include bedrooms, the dinner table, vehicles, etc. There can also be curfews for devices. Explain that the rules are not in place to be rigid or forbidding, but rather to provide safe and healthy limits.
- Take advantage of online resources to help in making decisions regarding children’s screen time and media use.
- Keep an open dialogue with children. Learn how they’re using media and talk with them about their favorite music, shows, social media sites, etc.
- Look for changes in behavior, such as becoming fearful, hostile, withdrawn or disinterested in favorite activities. A drop in grades is another warning sign that something may be bothering your child. If you need assistance in identifying or addressing the problem, talk with their pediatrician or seek the advice of a mental health professional.
Look for tips specific to online gaming safety as part of our Tid*Bits calendar series in June.
By Cheryl S. Al-Mateen, MD, child and adolescent psychiatrist
Medical executive editor for mental health blog series: Bela Sood, MD