Managing your child’s media diet

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Are you in charge of your family’s media diet? If allowed, many of our children would wallow all day in a trough of media candy. Let’s stay with that sugary analogy – media is chocolate and chocolate is good. A little bit is lovely, a luxury, a boon. But take too much, too often, and the negative effects kick in, subtly at first, but then dangerously. A child over-indulged with candy might end up a skid-row chocoholic, toothless in a coronary-care ward, and a child with an unregulated media diet might end up – how?

A growing body of research suggests that there can be several harmful effects – delayed language learning, attention problems, and learned violence are the most commonly cited problems. The ready communication through SMS, email and social media also means they are not only accessible to their friends but also to cyber-stalkers and bullies, right there in the corner of your lounge. But electronic media is so ‘more-ish’, how can we get control of their diet?

Establishing control

If your kids are small, you will not have to battle against existing media habits (apart from your own!) You can establish a family ‘media culture’ from the ground up. But even if you already have a tribe of media addicts in your house, you can still re-establish ground rules that will benefit them and your home-life.

Establish the culture in your family that TV, phones, computers, games etc. are a privilege, not a right, and that you retain the right to control children’s access to them. With older children you can say, “The internet and phones are a privilege, privilege comes from trust and trust comes from transparency. Therefore I retain the right to review your internet and phone histories (i.e. review what sites they’ve visited and what their text chats have been).”

Family Coach Jenny Hale talks about setting boundaries for children around technology

What are the ground rules?

First of all, no media should be dodgy or dangerous – more of that later. Secondly, media should make up only a small part of a balanced lifestyle, mixed in with plenty of active play, reading, chores, rest etc. Thirdly, let them know that there are priorities in your family. Mealtimes, for instance, are a higher priority and a media-free zone – the TV is turned off, the computer is shut down, and no texting at the table. Homework, chores and face-to-face contact with visitors all rate as a priority.

The ‘grandma’s rule’ formula (“You can do what you want to do when you’ve done what you’ve got to do”) works well here. “Of course you can go on the computer, after you’ve got that homework finished.” “I’ll put that DVD on after your bath.” “You can use the computer, but not until after dinner. There are few things I want you to do first.”

Any privilege can be revoked. If you need a consequence to reinforce discipline, think of withdrawing a media privilege. You can stop your children! I think too many parents fail to realise that devices can be turned off, passwords changed, and SIM and Sky cards removed. “But it’s my phone!” “Yes, and I am your mother!”

Have TV-free nights and a curfew on cellphones after 8pm.

Cyber nasties

  • Letting your children wander the internet without guidance or protection is very risky.
  • The internet is the haunt of thousands of sexual predators. Some children unwisely arrange ‘real-world’ contacts with people they meet online.
  • Kids have been known to use their parents’ Visa cards to run up huge bills on virtual wardrobes and even virtual real estate.
  • Innocent (and not-so-innocent) curiosity can have them surfing onto pornography sites within three clicks of a mouse button.
  • Social pages, along with texting, are the new way spineless bullies can make other kids miserable.

The wrong world

Our children should live in our world, not the world created by media cybergods. Children are amazingly pliable and easily shaped by influences early in life. In their years of innocence and vulnerability, nothing should get to them that we don’t approve of. If we take seriously our privilege of teaching them the values and wisdom that they will take on in life, we should be careful of anything that would contradict or dilute our messages. The media shows your children a world with values that are probably very different from your own.

Even little children get to see that, in media land, it is the pretty and attractive people that have the friends and success. They also learn that violence solves problems, and that the good guys use their fists or guns to sort things out. All sorts of values around materialism and sexuality get peddled as well, not only in the stories and lyrics, but also in the ads. Some of the values are toxic, some are just plain useless.

Isolated within a family

Modern media can unite people on different sides of the planet, and yet can separate people in the same room. One of the interesting features of modern media life is that it pushes the family apart as each person pursues their own media entertainment. Children and teens have their own programmes, even their own channels, which they quite probably watch on their own sets. Make sure you sometimes do things together as a family, watch a DVD or switch off and play a board or card game.

At a glance

  • Have the computer in a public part of the house where it can be monitored. If you have other computers at home, disable or password protect the internet access.
  • Use filtering software or a filtered internet provider.
  • Limit the sites children are allowed to visit – if they want to go elsewhere, you have to be there. Set up access to the sites they are allowed through the favourites icon.
  • Read the safety information on Facebook and other social pages (they have safety, blocking and privacy links) and make sure your children understand that they can and should block and report rude or abusive behaviour.
  • Set their page up so that it is only accessible to people they know.

Youth specialist Dave Atkinson and Family Coach Jenny Hale discuss how much time kids should be allowed to spend online

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