It's hard to understand the world of young teenagers without considering the huge impact on their lives of the mass media. It competes with families, friends, schools and communities in its ability to shape adolescents' interests, attitudes and values. The mass media infiltrates their lives. Most young teenagers watch TV and movies, surf the Internet, exchange e-mails, and listen to CDs and radio stations that target them with music and commercials and read articles and ads in adolescent magazines. However, look on the bright side. The new media technologies can be fun and exciting. Used wisely, they can also educate.
Good TV programs can inform, good music can comfort, and good movies can expand interests and unlock mysteries. Additionally, many forms of media are being used in classrooms today; computers, cable-equipped TVs and VCRs are all part of the landscape. Indeed, recent years have seen a commitment to connecting every classroom to the Internet and providing a reasonable number of computers to each classroom. As a result, kids need to be exposed to media, if only to learn how to use it.
The problem is that young teenagers often don't (or can't) distinguish between what's good in the media and what's bad. Some spend hours in front of the TV or plugged into earphones, passively taking in what they see and hear (e.g., violence, sex, profanities, gender, stereotyping and story lines and characters that are unrealistic). We know from research that seeing too much TV violence appears to increase aggressive behavior in kids, and that regular viewing of violence makes violence less shocking and more acceptable.
Young people who report watching the most TV have lower grades and lower test scores than do those who watch less TV. Teachers will tell you that, in any classroom, it is very apparent who's watching a lot of television and who's not. For the children who are not motivated in the classroom, mention TV and suddenly they perk up.
As young adolescents mature, high levels of TV-viewing, video-game playing and computer use take their toll. On average, American kids spend far more time with the media than they do completing work for school. Seventh graders, for example, spend an average of 135 minutes each day watching TV and 57 minutes doing schoolwork.
Add to these negative psychological and academic effects, negative physical effects. Recent reports show that the number of overweight adolescents in American has increased greatly over the past two decades. Being overweight, in turn, can contribute to serious health problems, such as diabetes.
Negative influences also come from other media (e.g., a growing number of ads in magazines, including some for harmful products such as alcohol and tobacco, are targeted at young teenagers). Your youngster will benefit from your guidance in helping him or her to balance media-related activities with other activities (e.g., reading, talking with family, spending time with friends).
Here are some ways that you can help your youngster make good media choices:
1. Consider buying a V-chip for your TV or a filter for your computer. A V-chip is a computer chip that can detect program ratings—X, R, PG and so on and so block your youngster from watching pornographic, violent or other inappropriate TV channels. Similar chips or filters can prevent your youngster from visiting certain Web sites. Many of these can be obtained for free or for modest costs at your local electronics store.
2. Limit the amount of time your youngster spends viewing TV. It's impossible to protect your youngster entirely from the media. Banning TV entirely may only strengthen its appeal to him. However, some moms and dads do make TV viewing off-limits during the school week, except for special programs that are agreed to ahead of time. Remember, it's easier to restrict your youngster's poor media choices if you say no before he brings home the objectionable DVDS, CDs or computer games or turns on the violent TV programs. Let your youngster know that you will monitor his media choices.
3. Model alternative forms of entertainment. A young adolescent whose mother or father is constantly in front of the TV or checking his e-mail over a quick dinner is being sent a definite message. Moms and dads who turn off the TV or computer and engage in conversation, sports, games or other activities are showing alternatives to their kids. A teen today may well wonder "what did you do before TV?" Show them!
4. Monitor what your youngster watches and listens to. Don't just listen to how loud the music is, but to what the words are. Learn about the TV programs and movies that your youngster wants to watch, the computer games she wants to play and the music she wants to listen to. Knowing something about your youngster's interests will let you enter into her world and talk with more knowledge and force about her choices. Ask your adolescent what bands or singers she likes. Then read about her favorites in magazines or newspapers, or listen to her CDs or to the radio stations that play her music.
5. Provide alternatives to media entertainment. If you give children enough activities, the TV goes away. Given the opportunity, many kids would rather do than watch. A day at a miniature golf course or a visit with a friend may hold more appeal for your youngster than watching TV.
6. Suggest TV programs that you want your youngster to watch. Encourage your youngster to watch TV programs about a variety of subjects (e.g., nature, travel, history, science, biography, news) as well as programs that entertain. News and history programs, for example, can encourage conversations about world issues, national and local politics, social problems and health concerns.
7. Speak with other moms and dads. Discussing movies, TV shows, computer games and CDs with the moms and dads of your youngster's peers and classmates can give you more strength to say no when he wants to see or hear something that think is inappropriate. You also can quickly find out that not everyone in the seventh grade is going to be allowed to see the latest R-rated movie in which bloody bodies are strewn across the screen.
8. Speak with your youngster about misleading ads. Young teenagers are especially vulnerable to advertising. Talk with your youngster about what ads are for (i.e., to sell products) and about how to judge whether the products the ads sell are right for him. If, for example, your teenager has short, blond, curly hair, ask her if she really thinks the shampoo that she wants you to spend $25 for will make her hair look like the long, black, straight hair on the model in the magazine advertisement.
9. Speak with your youngster about the difference between facts and points of view. Young adolescents need to learn that not everything they hear or see is true. Let your youngster know that the TV show or movie she sees, the radio station or music she listens to and the magazine she reads may have a definite point of view. Talk with her about how the media can promote certain ideas or beliefs, which may different from those of your family. If your youngster wants to watch, listen to or read something that you believe is inappropriate, let her know exactly why you object.
10. Speak with your youngster about the risks of visiting computer chat rooms. Let your youngster know the dangers of "talking" online with strangers. There is software that can restrict kids from chat rooms, even as they allow access to other content.