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Dr. Dave's Cyberhood

Making Media Choices That Create a Healthy Electronic Environment for Your Kids
By David Walsh

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: Parenting in the Media Age

Children are the purpose of life.

We were once children and someone took

care of us. Now it is our turn to care.


-- Cree Indian Elder

This quote has long been a favorite of mine, so centered and wise, so accepting of what parenthood is all about: making children the priority. All children deserve to come first, from rural towns and pulsing metros, living with two caregivers and one, economically secure and disadvantaged. As parents, our basic job is to care for our children: to see to their physical, emotional, social, and spiritual needs. Like you, the overwhelming majority of parents want to take good care of their children. It is with this belief that this book unfolds.

Just how you go about caring for your child depends on your individual family situation. If you live in the country, for example, keeping your child safe requires certain considerations, while living in a city neighborhood requires others. Or, if you work in an office full time, managing your child's care after school is different than if you work at home.

Whatever the mix of variables is, one factor that figures into the equation for all parents is the society in which they are raising their children. History has shown, many times over, how spectacular events reshape the world, changing the way people live, work, and communicate. Consider the invention of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century. The implications were astounding. For the first time, printed information became widely available, the ability to read spread across generations, and literacy took root in civilization. The significance of this event goes much deeper: the ability to read and write transformed the way we think, in effect, ending the Dark Ages and beginning the Renaissance.

Whether you realize it, you exercise this transformation every time you move from spoken to written language. Just think about how your vocabulary expands when you write. You take the time to choose the words that most precisely, powerfully, or effectively capture what you want to communicate. When you speak, you have to the pull the words out quickly to keep a sentence going. Written language also brings discipline to the thought process. When you write, you have to organize your thinking differently from when you speak; writing is not just a stream of consciousness. You have to systemize your thoughts into outlines, paragraphs, and chapters. When you look at the whole picture, that one event -- the invention of the printing press -- is pretty impressive.

New York University professor Neil Postman adds yet another chapter to the legacy of the printing press. He argues that its invention led to the actual concept of childhood -- the notion that children go through stages of development to become adults. Prior to the availability of the printed word, children were thought of as a minature adults or little people. This perspective began to change with the realization that learning to read and write does not happen overnight; that children learn and develop this skill over a period of years. The idea of childhood as a time of development began to take shape. Coming from our contemporary perspective, where there is so much focus on issues of child development, it's hard to imagine there was a time when being a child simply meant being a little person.

Another history-making, culture-shaking event took place in the early nineteenth century: the Industrial Revolution. We consider it significant because it gave rise to mass production. Goods that were made more efficiently, in greater quantities, and of higher quality, meant a higher standard of living. The effect of this event on family culture was just as remarkable. Prior to the revolution, the worlds of work and family life were interwoven, the line separating them indistinct. If you were a candlemaker or a shoemaker, your shop was at the front of the house and your family lived at the back. If you were a farmer, your fields surrounded your cottage. As soon as the kids were old enough, they took part in the family business. Parents and children interacted all day long. Children learned skills right along with attitudes and values in this natural blend of family life and work.

When the Industrial Revolution took hold, manufacturing centers appeared, cities grew up around them, and people began to migrate from rural livelihoods to urban employment. In the process, family life changed dramatically. With adults off to factories every day, parents not only interacted with their children less, they had to make arrangements for the care of the young ones while they were at work. Widespread public education was the eventual outcome. The way kids learned skills, attitudes, and values took a critical turn.

This history minilesson helps put us in the right frame of mind to look at our own situation. Families are now in the midst of a revolution at least as profound as these historical milestones. And it, too, is changing the way children -- our children -- are being raised. Some call it the Dawn of the Information Age, others the Digital Revolution, or the Telecommunications Revolution. By any name, it is changing the way we live and communicate at a faster rate than any other force. Its dazzling array of electronic media has become essential to our lives. In fact, our kids spend more time with these media than doing any other activity in their waking hours. Inevitably, this changes what it means to care for our children.

Because this incredible revolution is becoming our way of life we may not appreciate just how awesome it is, but you don't have to look far for evidence. You may have seen the Hallmark card that lets you record a greeting. For about $8.95, the recipient of your good wishes can hear the words right out of your mouth via a tiny computer chip imbedded in the card. That you can buy a card that speaks for you is novel enough but, what's really stunning, is that there is more computing power in that one chip than existed in the entire world prior to 1950. Perhaps even more remarkable is the electronic picture frame: You give it to a loved one; then send digital images via e-mail directly to the frame. Grandma and Grandpa can have a new picture of their grandchild every day.

Here's another perspective on the Digital Revolution: If the speed of change in the computer industry over the last fifty years was matched in the auto industry, we would be buying our new cars for one-tenth of one penny. Those inexpensive cars would be traveling at the speed of light.

To further prove the point, if you buy a computer today, you have to resign yourself to Moore's Law (after Gordon Moore, founder of Intel, the leading manufacturer of microprocessors). It promises that "the speed and capacity of the microprocessor doubles every eighteen months." So, your new PC is becoming outdated before the carton even makes it to the recycler.

This digital age has even changed our language. We have a whole vocabulary for talking about how much information can be digitally stored. The first computers held kilobytes of information (mere thousands of bytes), only to be replaced by megabytes (millions of bytes), then gigabytes (billions of bytes), soon terabytes (trillions of bytes), and, eventually, petabytes (quadrillions of bytes).

The same thing has happened to measuring time. Look at any athletic scoreboard. Instead of hours, minutes, and seconds, we break down the last moments of the game into hundredths of a second. If that doesn't do it, we can measure in milliseconds. In this digital world, we can measure increments of time in nanoseconds, and, even finer yet, in picoseconds.

This gives us a feel for the scope of the revolution we are in. We're as much a part of it as it's a part of us. Technology that didn't exist a few years ago is so ingrained in our daily living that we hardly give it a second thought. We keep inventing and incorporating more and more tools to help us communicate and receive information. Voice mail, e-mail, pagers, cell phones, CDs, video games, TV, the Internet -- a reverberating explosion of media, a media age. These everyday wonders have transformed how we do our work, how we communicate with each other, how we entertain ourselves. We're on a roll and not slowing down.

This is the world in which our children are growing up. This is the world in which we have to care for them. It is an amazing world, to be sure, and the benefits of a media age are real -- the ability to instantly communicate with millions of people simultaneously is but one of the marvels. What should be important to us, as parents and caregivers, however, is not whether we should label media as good or bad: They are neither, entirely. What matters is that we recognize media for what they are above all else: powerful. And they are available to our children every day.

A thirty-second AT&T commercial succinctly illustrates our media-saturated world. The spot opens with a grade-school girl and her friends huddled over lunch in the cafeteria. The friends plead with her to reveal the name of her new crush. Finally, amidst pledges of secrecy, she gives in. The next thing you know, the news is out via the technological grapevine. We see kids sending faxes, getting e-mail, talking on cell phones, and so on, until the girl arrives home only to find out that her mother already knows, and worse yet, the crush, Bobby, is waiting for her in the family room. I'm sure the intent of the commercial wasn't to horrify parents at the power of media unleashed in the hands of children, nor to mirror how quickly they are growing up because of them. However, it does reflect the pervasiveness of media and just how much they have changed the way we live and communicate.

For parents, media has changed something else: how we define caring for our children. Consider this for a moment: You might agree that taking care of your child means knowing where he or she is, because there are potential dangers and influences you want to keep at bay. So, you know where in the neighborhood your child is playing. Living in the Media Age changes even this basic notion. Now, your child can wander through the infinite spaces of cyber neighborhoods, via the Internet, while sitting in her bedroom. And, just as there are real places you wouldn't want your child to spend time in, there are plenty of inappropriate cyberhoods he or she shouldn't be visiting either.

Here's another angle on the reality of parenthood. You wouldn't dream of letting your child subsist on an ice cream diet -- no matter how much she would like it -- because it isn't good for her. You know how important balanced nutrition is to her physical health and development. Yet, with the accessibility of television today, many children are allowed to consume a steady diet of programming (and the advertising that comes with it), unchecked and unmonitored. Common sense tells you there's a question of emotional health and development at stake here. Later on in this book, you'll get a good look at this issue as well as at the risks associated with other forms of media.

As parents and caregivers, our basic role is still the same -- to care for our children -- but, what that caring entails has changed, because of the society in which we live. So, we need to adapt our caregiving to fit the circumstances. Just as you see a family trip to the lake as an opportunity for fun, you also recognize the power of open water and know that it is your responsibility to look out for your children and ensure their well-being. You adapt your caregiving to fit the circumstances. Caring for your child in this age of electronic media is no different. You feel a responsibility to guide and protect them -- to care for them -- to the best of your abilities.

Which brings us to the issue of time, because caring for your child requires your time. You know this well. That one word -- time -- can make your heart beat a little faster and your shoulders start to inch up. Not because you don't care enough to spend the time, but because you care so much, and you have to work so hard to get more mileage out of a finite day and measurable resources. And now, on top of everything else you have to care about, you have to manage your children's media diet, too.

All the technology we have at our fingertips is supposed to alleviate the crunch but, ironically, it intensifies the problem. It promises us more time to do the things we want (remember talk of the thirty-hour work week?). Instead, the pace of everything has sped up, and we keep trying to fit more and more into the time that's available. As technology enables things to work faster and faster, we expect shorter and shorter turnarounds. When we get an e-mail, the expectation is an immediate response. So, instead of more time, we actually end up with less.

It's no wonder we're primed for the temptation of media: that they will entertain and occupy our kids. With time obligations piling up, it's very easy to turn to those captivating electronic baby-sitters -- television, video games, and computers. At the end of a long day, it's far easier to hand off responsibility to technology, far easier not to put out.

The problem is, while we care about raising healthy, happy, well-adjusted, children with healthy attitudes and values, electronic media do not share the same objectives. Electronic media are interested in only one thing: making money. Electronic media are interested in our children as consumers, not learners, as you'll see later on. Our kids are going to be raised either by us, or by electronic media.

A finding that appeared in the October 1998 Nielsen Ratings is very telling. A poll of family viewing habits revealed that the television show most watched by two- to five-year-olds was Friends. Of course, children this young were not choosing to watch Friends. They watched because their parents turned it on. The show airs in early prime time, when many children are not yet in bed. However, since we can't expect the media to change to meet our individual needs for the sake of our children, we have to make changes ourselves. We have to take another look -- a critical look -- at the media we've become so accustomed to.

You can give it a try right now. Imagine that someone you know and feel comfortable with has just rung your doorbell and asked to come in and talk to your children. You invite her into the family room and gather up the kids. Your guest then proceeds to persuade your children to accept certain values by exhorting, cajoling, and mesmerizing them. The method is offensive enough but what's worse is that you disagree with the values being sold. What do you do? Allow this guest to stay, or put your foot down and show her the door?

You and every family in America has a live-in guest like this to contend with every day: television. However, it's much more persuasive and slick than anyone who might ring the doorbell. And, we're so comfortable with it. It's a regular part of our lives. We're so used to the images and sounds TV feeds our eyes and ears that often we don't register the messages, or their impact. When it comes to our children, we have to pay attention, because they are. We have to make decisions about what is appropriate for our children to experience. We have to put the same thought into these decisions that we would into where they play, what food they eat, and who we hire to baby-sit them. And this takes our time.

If you feel your heart racing again, remind yourself of what you already know: that your child is your priority. You know it, you feel it, you believe it. Reminding yourself of this is what fuels you and keeps you on track in the midst of a million things competing for your time. It's what allows you to take a breath when things are at their craziest, and let go a little when everything else doesn't get done so perfectly. In the face of this clarity, time doesn't control you. It becomes yours again, instead of a commodity controlled by the momentum of a hurry-up world. And when it is yours to give your child, you have something media can't give them.

Learning what it means to care for your child in an age of electronic media is not only the job of parenthood today, it is preparation for what's to come. The media landscape we live in is constantly evolving. Even five years from now, the technology we will have at our disposal will be very different. The lines separating media will dissolve: One remote will move us instantly from one medium to another. Interactive TV will filter into households everywhere. The benefits will be greater, and so will be the potential dangers. As a parent, you will need to keep pace and adapt as the definition of a caring parent evolves.

Now that you are beginning to realize what it means to be a parent in the Media Age, you can get on with it. Take a good look at the media your child is using, exploring, and experiencing. You can understand what makes it so powerful. You can learn how to care for your child in the Media Age, then start doing it. This book is dedicated to helping you make the changes and be more in charge. It will reinforce your belief that you can do something about how your child is growing up. It will rekindle your hope. From beginning to end, it supports you in your pursuit of what matters most -- your kids.

Your Cyberhood Map

When we travel into unfamiliar territory, a good map helps us find our way. Since we will be the ones guiding our children as the Digital Revolution unfolds, it would be nice to have a map through the new and changing cyberhoods, the worlds of electronic media. Each chapter in this book will help you map the boundaries and terrain within those worlds. Along the way you'll identify cyberhoods -- websites, virtual game spaces, learning environments -- you feel confident letting your children explore. There are others you'll want to avoid. No one but you can identify which is which. There are just too many variables. Each of our children is different, and each of us has our own perspective on which values are most important.

The activities that are included in every chapter are intended to help locate appropriate cyberhoods for your family. Each activity focuses on one of five different thematic categories.

Chapter One Activities

The goal of this book is to develop healthy media habits. The activities in chapters 1 and 2 will help focus attention on just what kinds of media affect us every day. All these media teach our children values. Comparing our family values and media values is an important step in constructing your map. The Media Measure activity is a valuable tool for you to measure not only what media is used, but also how it is used in your home.

Activity: Who's Plugged In?

For parents or parents and children ages ten and up.

Test your intuition. Guess how many families, kids, and so on, own or use various types of media. Match a percentage from the first column with a type of media in the second column. Circle what you consider to be the five most common items. Compare your answers with the answers on the next page and see if there are any surprises.

Percent (%)

98% _____ American families with television sets

70% _____ American families with radios

35% _____ American families with VCRs

82% _____ American kids with TVs in their bedrooms

43% _____ American youth with their own stereo equipment

47% _____ American teens with their own CD/cassette player

98% _____ American families with computers

78% _____ American households with home access to the Internet

57% _____ American families with video-game equipment

8% _____ American families with faxes

69% _____ American households with telephones

22% _____ American families with answering machines/voice mail

53% _____ American teens with pagers

14% _____ American adults with cell phones

94% _____ American teens with own cell phones

99% _____ American families who subscribe to cable or satellite TV

ANSWERS

99% American families with television sets

98% American families with radios

98% American families with VCRs

53% American kids with TV in their bedroom

35% American teens with their own stereo equipment

57% American teens with their own CD or cassette player

69% American households with computers

43% American households with home access to the Internet

70% American families with video-game equipment

22% American families with faxes

94% American households with telephones

82% American families with answering machines/voice mail

14% American teens with pagers

57% American adults with cell phones

8% American teens with own cell phones

78% American households who subscribe to cable or satellite TV

We Americans use a lot of media. We can hardly imagine life without TVs, computers, radios, and, now, cell phones and other wireless communication. Our children will live in an even more media-saturated world. We parents can help maximize the benefits of these media by developing healthy family media habits.

Activity: The Digital Revolution

For parents (with help from kids ages ten and up).

In the last one hundred years, we've gone from books and letters to telephone to radio to television to computers and wireless communication. Do you know some of the new language of the digital revolution? Here are some terms. See how many you can match.

1. Terabyte A. A small program that can cause your hard drive to crash. Contracted by downloading infected files or trading floppy disks.

2. HDTV B. A service that connects your TV to the Internet via a phone line.

3. E-mail C. A lot of memory for your computer.

4. CD-ROM D. Interactive games played online between players from different parts of the world.

5. Cookie E. Electronic messages sent from one Internet server to another, posted to a user's address.

6. Online Gaming F. Junk e-mail messages.

7. Virus G. A plastic disk that can hold 650 megabytes of memory.

8. SPAM H. Computer language that is used to add animation, sound and interactive features to Web pages.

9. Java I. A small file placed on your computer when you enter a website. This program tracks every click of your mouse at that site.

10. WebTV J. Pictures and sound sent in digital format, delivers a program with movielike quality.

Answers: 1. C 2. J 3. E 4. G 5. I 6. D 7. A 8. F 9. H 10. B

Activity: Media Map

For parents and children ages four through ten.

Part of taking charge of electronic media is knowing just what it is, where it is, and who's using it.

Make a media map. Label a box for each room in your house. Use additional sheets of paper if necessary. Draw in the different types of media (TVs, radios, computers, etc.) in that room. Write the names of the users next to each type of media.

Do this for each room in your home. Don't forget that radio in the bathroom or that telephone in the bedroom. (Hint: You may want to use a larger piece of paper for this activity if children are involved.)

If you have a young child, you may want to play a game of Tag the Media. In a given room, ask the child to find the things that help us communicate, talk to, or get ideas from other people. Label it (i.e., TV) with a sticky note, and list users below. Have the child stick the note on the medium.

Activity: Media Diet

For parents.

As parents, we choose foods for our children that will help their bodies grow strong and healthy. Likewise, we must also try to choose media that will help their minds and spirits grow healthy and strong.

In each column, list what you want healthy foods and healthy media to do for your child.

HEALTHY BODY

Food Diet

Strengthen bones and muscles

Promote an active lifestyle

pard

______________________________________________________

______________________________________________________

______________________________________________________

______________________________________________________

______________________________________________________

List what you want healthy foods to do for your child

HEALTHY MIND AND SPIRIT

Media Diet

Encourage curious thinkers

Promote altruistic role models

______________________________________________________

______________________________________________________

______________________________________________________

______________________________________________________

______________________________________________________

List what you wanthealthy media to do for your child

Activity: Media Measure

For parents.

This inventory will help you take a quick measure not only of the kinds of media your family uses, but how media are used in your home.

At the start of each media category you will see three traffic signs, which will help you evaluate your answers.

Go Caution Stop

For each kind of media that your family uses, circle the answers that describe your family's media habits. In each column, Y stands for Yes; S, sometimes; N, no.

TELEVISION

Think about your family's television viewing habits.

Does your child have a television in her/his room?

Go N Caution S Stop Y

Does your child watch more than one to two hours of television per day?

Go N Caution S Stop Y

Do you have rules about when TV can be watched? (Not before school, not until homework is done, etc.)

Go Y Caution S Stop N

Do you have TV on during meals?

Go N Caution S Stop Y

Do you monitor your child's viewing and limit shows with violent themes?

Go Y Caution S Stop N

Do you often watch TV with your child?

Go Y Caution S Stop N

Do you discuss television programs with your child?

Go Y Caution S Stop N

MOVIES

Do you know what's on the screen at the theater?

Do you make sure you know what movies your child is going to see at the theater?

Go Y Caution S Stop N

Does your child need your permission before seeing a movie?

Go Y Caution S Stop N

Do you check movie ratings before giving permission?

Go Y Caution S Stop N

Do you consult other movie evaluations besides the industry ratings to find out more about the content?

Go Y Caution S Stop N

Do you allow your child to see movies that contain a lot of violence?

Go N Caution S Stop Y

RADIO/CD

Does your child have his/her own radio or stereo?

Go Y Caution S Stop N

Do you listen to the music your child is playing?

Go Y Caution S Stop N

Do you listen to the stations your child is tuning into?

Go Y Caution S Stop N

Do you talk to your child about lyrics that you object to?

Go Y Caution S Stop N

Does your family have age-appropriate limits on the types music your child purchases?

Go Y Caution S Stop N

COMPUTER GAMES

Check your game collection.

Do you own or rent games have violent content? (Violence on the cover is a good clue as to the content.)

Go N Caution S Stop Y

Do you play the games so that you become familiar with the content?

Go Y Caution S Stop N

Are the games you buy age appropriate for your child?

Go Y Caution S Stop N

Do you check a game's rating before renting or buying?

Go Y Caution S Stop N

Do you limit your child's game-playing time?

Go Y Caution S Stop N

INTERNET

Does your child have access to the Internet at home?

Do you monitor computer use?

Go Y Caution S Stop N

Do you use an Internet-blocking device that prevents children from visiting inappropriate websites?

Go Y Caution S Stop N

Do you find and list appropriate sites?

Go Y Caution S Stop N

Have you talked with your child about the best use of the Internet?

Go Y Caution S Stop N

VIDEO GAMES

Check your home collection.

Do you own or rent games that have violent content? (If the cover has a violent scene, the content is probably violent.)

Go N Caution S Stop Y

Do you play the games so that you become familiar with the content?

Go Y Caution S Stop N

Do you rent a game to preview it before purchasing?

Go Y Caution S Stop N

Are your games age appropriate for your child?

Go Y Caution S Stop N

Do you check a game's rating before you rent or buy it?

Go Y Caution S Stop N

Do you limit your child's game playing time?

Go Y Caution S Stop N

VIDEOS

Do you own a VCR?

Do you monitor which movies your child picks out at the video store?

Go Y Caution S Stop N

Do you check movie ratings before allowing your child to choose a video?

Go Y Caution S Stop N

Do you consult other movie evaluations besides the industry ratings to find oud more about the content?

Go Y Caution S Stop N

Do you check with other parents about which videos may be shown at parties or sleepovers?

Go Y Caution S Stop N

Do you allow your child to see videos that contain a lot of violence?

Go N Caution S Stop Y

Look at your answers for each category.

Answers circled in the Go (green light) column mean that your family is practicing positive media habits.

Answers circled in the Caution (yellow light) column mean you might want to take time to review your family's media habits in these areas.

Answers circled in the Stop (red light) column means you might want to think about changing your family's media habits in these areas.

* * *

As parents, it's our job to help our children reap the benefits of new media and avoid their pitfalls and traps. I hope that the preceding activities have raised your awareness of the media that surround us and made you consider how you can become more involved in choosing what does and does not belong in your children's media diet. As you read on, you'll find tools and ideas to help you create a media-smart family.

Chapter 2 continues to focus on the types of media we are exposed to every day, outside and inside our homes, and what impact this might have on our children.

Chapters 3 and 4 take a look at television, still the number one media of choice for most kids. An important activity here is the TV log to find out who's watching what and for how long. Chapter 4 will look at media messages, and focus on what actions you can take to foster healthy media use.

Chapter 5 focuses on the news and how to tell the difference between news and entertainment.

Chapter 6 takes a look at advertising and how advertising can affect your child.

In chapter 7, activities focus on the Internet and how to help your children practice safe computing.

Chapter 8 outlines how to choose a video game and build a family plan around healthy video game use.

Chapter 9 activities focus on the world of teen music. How to listen and learn can open up new avenues of communication with your teen.

Chapter 10 focuses on reading. A child's success in school is strongly affected by the amount and use of media in their lives. These activities encourage reading along with healthy media use.

Copyright © 2001 by The National Institute on Media and the Family

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