Putting your kids on a media diet

Don't let your kids sit in front of a screen all day. Put them on a healthy media diet.

by Larry Magid

The calendar has great news for kids and mixed news for parents. Summer is almost here, which means kids will be home from school. For parents this can bring on extra challenges, especially now that kids have so many electronic indoor diversions that can entertain and educate but also bring on certain risks.

There are a lot of reasons parents should limit the amount of time their kids spend online, watching TV or playing video games. These include the risks associated with interacting with strangers, the negative messages from some of the media and the negative health effects of too much screen time and not enough outdoor activity.

Let’s start with the Internet. The vast majority of U.S. homes with children now have a broadband connection, which means it’s easy for kids to go online to check and update their profiles on MySpace, Facebook and other social networks or to surf the web and exchange instant messages with friends. There is nothing wrong with any of these activities as long as they’re done in moderation and with reasonable safety guidelines. To that end, kids should be reminded to:

  • Be careful what they post: Avoid posting provocative or sexually suggestive photos, avoid personal information that could allow a stranger to contact them, as well as anything that could prove embarrassing now or in the future.
  • Mind their manners: Kids should be reminded to treat others online respectfully. It turns out that kids who harass others are also more likely to be victims of cyberbullying.
  • Don’t talk about sex with strangers: I know this seems obvious but research at the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center has found a strong correlation between this activity and reports of victimization.
  • And, of course, children should be reminded not to get together with strangers they meet online. If such a meeting is to take place, it should be in a public place and you should bring others along such as a parent or a group of friends.

If your kids are playing video games, you might want to make sure the games are age appropriate. Games, regardless of whether they’re played on a console or a personal computer, have a rating from the Entertainment Software Rating Board (esrb.org), an industry self-regulatory body. While no rating system is perfect these are reasonably granular and should give you a pretty good sense of whether the game is appropriate: Ratings include: EC (early childhood), E (everyone), E10+ (everyone 10 or older), T (teen, 13 and older), M (mature 17+) and AO (adults only). The group’s Web site provides more details on why a game received the rating it did. Grand Theft Auto Vice City Stories, for example, was rated M for “blood and gore, intense violence, strong language, strong sexual content, use of drugs.”

Common Sense Media (www.commonsensemedia.org) publishes more in-depth ratings of games along with DVDs, movies in theaters, Web sites, TV shows, music and books. It’s an excellent place to get a sense of what your kids are likely experiencing with their media as well as some “common sense” advice about keeping kids on a “healthy media diet,” such as “set media time limits and stick to them; check content and ratings in advance to choose media that is age-appropriate; and keep media out of kids’ bedrooms.”

Common Sense Media CEO Jim Steyer warns parents to be especially on guard during the summer months. “Summer time presents a big challenge for parents when it comes to kids and media. In general, kids are spending about 45 to 50 hours per week consuming media, and in the summer months this can rise dramatically.”

One negative byproduct of too much media is childhood obesity, which, says Steyer is “directly correlated to how much times kids spend consuming media and particularly in front of a screen.”

Steyer’s observations are backed up by a 2004 Kaiser Family Foundation study that found “the majority of scientific research indicates that children who spend the most time with media are more likely to be overweight.” This is a major problem in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found that that since 1980 the proportion of overweight children ages 6 to 11 has more than doubled, and the rate for adolescents has tripled.

Contrary to what may seem obvious, the reason for the correlation between screen time and obesity is not because media use displaces time spent in physical activities, but because, as Kaiser Foundation put it, “children are exposed to a vast number of TV ads for food products such as sodas, cereal, candy, and fast food. Other research suggests that exposure to food commercials influences children’s preferences and food requests, and that ads can also contribute to confusion among children about the relative health benefits of certain foods.”

Steyer recommends that parents “understand the incredible impact that media has on their children and set clear boundaries and limits,” including “how many hours a day will devoted to watching TV, playing an Xbox or IMing friends.” Styer also counsels parents to do their homework and “find out what’s in that movie or that TV show and understand.” Perhaps more important, “really beginning an ongoing discussion and dialog with them about media messages and images. If our kids become critical thinkers, they can decode some of those messages and images.”

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