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Shape the Media

The New York Times' Room for Debate Blog

January 28, 2010

By Lisa Guernsey

Are parents negligent? Yes. And so are schools, community organizations, religious institutions, media producers, media distributors and policymakers. But not in the way you might think.

Remember the boy named Mike Teavee in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”? I just had the scrumptious pleasure of reading that book to my 5-year-old. We giggled over poor, ridiculous Mike Teavee who was so sucked into television that he was literally sucked into television — miniaturized and carried away by the Oompa Loompas who sang a plea to parents: “so please, oh please, we beg, we pray/Go throw your TV set away.” The lines were so timely, so apropos, that I had to check the book’s copyright date. Yes, it was published in 1964.

As parents, we’ve spent nearly 50 years trying to keep children away from media, and look where they are now: swimming in it.

We know that kids’ attitudes and ideas about the world, and their place in it, are shaped by the language, images and interactions they have through media, whether they are watching TV on Hulu or immersed in World of Warcraft. But we think little about the actual content they are engaging with. As a society, we are at risk of forfeiting our chance to shape the way media is shaping our kids.

Our negligence as parents isn’t about our inability to keep children away from TV’s, computer screens, iPods and Nintendo DSes. Our negligence comes in our inability to think creatively about harnessing this screen time for good, helping our kids reach higher planes intellectually and emotionally.

Experiencing the media together would be a good first step. The research on “co-viewing” — on the positive impact that comes from parents watching media with their children and talking about it — is persuasive. Schools and community groups need to wake up too and explore how these media interactions could be turned into more active learning experiences that extend to real, face-to-face life.

And yes, we will still need to set boundaries. I liked the example, given at the Kaiser Family Foundation forum last week, of middle-school parents banding together to impose a texting “curfew” on weeknights. But we also have to push producers and distributors to make screen time less a waste of time.

Media producers and distributors are having an outsize influence on what our kids learn and understand about how the world works. They have a responsibility to create engaging games or shows that expose kids to the wonders of, say, science, literature and history instead of mindless, snippy dialogue that takes them nowhere.

High-quality, captivating media exists out there, but it is the exception, not the rule, and that’s why the warning of the Oompa Loompas still rings in the ears of parents today.


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