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Managing kids exposure to media

Parents have been wringing their hands over their children's entertainment choices for hundreds of years. Mozart's opera Così fan tutte was considered scandalous in the nineteenth century. In the 1920s, short-haired flappers shocked their elders with their brash, androgynous look. Even the early rock-n-roll music of the '50s, considered quaint today, was so disturbing to the general public that when Elvis performed on the Ed Sullivan Show, television censors only showed his body from the waist up!

Today, moms and dads are navigating an entertainment minefield littered with sexually suggestive dolls aimed at little girls, nightmarishly violent video games for boys, and musical lyrics celebrating misogyny, promiscuity, and drug use.

What's a beleaguered parent to do?

Take a breath. Take control. Take a step back.

Take a Breath
Before you decide what's appropriate for your kids, consider the big picture. "Parents should know that the rate of violent crime among juveniles has plummeted in the last 10 to 12 years," says Dr. Karen Sternheimer, PhD, sociologist at the University of Southern California and author of Kids These Days: Facts and Fictions About Today's Youth. And there's more good news: statistics show that the teenage pregnancy rate in this country is at its lowest level in 30 years.

Considering the big picture also means asking yourself if your child's choices are harmful or just different from what you liked as a kid. Your daughter is wearing tons of black eyeliner to achieve the Goth look that drives you nuts—but is that worse than the layers of blue eyeliner you caked on a la Madonna in the 80s?

Are the lyrics in your kid's favourite song actually more suggestive than the raunchy double entendres from the Grease soundtrack that kids memorised in the '70s?

How about toys? You may think the makeup set and plastic nails your young daughter received for her birthday are sending the wrong message about beauty and self-esteem, but are they any more harmful than the big Barbie salon heads with the long fake hair and makeup from your childhood?

"There's a perennial fear that kids are taking us down the road to the end of civilisation," says Dr. Sternheimer. "Confucius and Plato both asked, 'What's wrong with kids these days?'" and the answer is that there's nothing wrong with them. Kids are kids—they've always been attracted to what's exciting, scary, shocking, titillating, gross, and just about anything that will get a reaction out of their parents. If this sounds like your child, he or she is likely perfectly normal—and you are normal for wanting to protect your kids from undesirable influences. Just try not to overreact, because you were once a kid who saw things, read things, and heard things that would have given your parents conniptions… and you turned out all right in the end.

Take Control
So how do you decide what constitutes objectionable material when it comes to your kids? Dr. Jim Taylor, PhD, parenting psychologist and author of Your Children Are Under Attack says, "There are no set rules. It's up to parents to decide based on their values."

Parents need to understand their own values, he says, so they can make rational decisions regarding their children's entertainment. Beyond basic values of peace over violence or polite manners versus rudeness, Dr. Taylor suggests teaching kids to value traits like honesty over physical attractiveness or sportsmanship over greed.

Additionally, Dr. Taylor wants parents to recognise that television producers, music companies, and game manufacturers create products with the sole intention of making a profit. "Parents need to understand the power of pop culture and study it," he says. "Play the music, play the video games, watch the movies, and understand the underlying messages."

Consider something as simple as a soft drink commercial with its catchy music and images of cool kids laughing and slapping high fives. Children are slammed over the head with the message that drinking soda will make them attractive, popular, and deliriously happy. If parents are tuned into those commercials, they can ask their kids, "When you drink a Coke, does the room suddenly erupt into a party? Do you become more popular?" Kids will most likely laugh at the absurdity, but you've given them a basic tool for seeing beyond the hype and thinking for themselves.

Seeing through the hype also helps you explain to your children exactly why you object to something. If Bratz dolls bother you because they celebrate the sexualisation of little girls, tell your young daughter that you won't buy them for her because everyone knows that it's rude to walk around half naked and you don't want her playing with rude toys.

Similarly, if your son wants to listen to music with lyrics that degrade women, not only are you in the right to ban it from your house and his iPod, you're responsible as a parent to explain to him exactly what those words mean and how offensive they are to women… including his mother! Sometimes you might agree that a certain movie is great, but that your child isn't mature enough to appreciate it yet. There's nothing wrong with saying, "I know your friends have all seen it and you've heard all about it. But there is material in there that you and your friends aren't old enough to fully understand, so you may absolutely see it when I think you're ready."

On the topic of taking control, never ever forget who's defining the values in your family. Dr. Sternheimer says, "Parents are under a lot of pressure to exercise these controls over their kids, often from other parents! They wonder if they're not good parents or if they're doing something wrong if they let their child do something other parents don't allow."

Taking control means becoming familiar with what is influencing your children and making decisions based on your family's set of values.

Take a Step Back
You've done your homework, you set limits that are appropriate for your kids, and you're feeling pretty good. As hard as it might be to hear, it might be time to back off a little.

"Parents need to decide what their threshold is, then take it up a notch or two. Kids need victory to become independent," says Dr. Taylor. That means if your curfew is 11:00 and they want midnight, bump it up to 11:30. Dr. Taylor says, "If you give them little victories, they won't push for the big ones."

Dr. Sternheimer agrees, "There's nothing wrong with families defining their standards and saying 'not for us,' but they have to realise that their child is developing an identity separate from their parents. Young teens do this by embracing popular culture that their parents don't like. It's how they define themselves as 'not their parents."

That means picking your battles. Disallow movies with graphic sex scenes, but consider letting your kids read valuable literature containing sexual themes such as The Scarlet Letter. Go ahead and ban death metal music, but don't go on a musical witch-hunt and ban songs by James Blunt (You're Beautiful) or even soft rock icon James Taylor (Steamroller) because they contain a single curse word.

Stepping back also means realising that despite your best efforts, your children will undoubtedly be exposed to objectionable material in the hallways at school or at a friend's house. In fact, they'll probably even go looking for it. Chances are that when you were a kid, you tasted forbidden fruit now and then too.

"Kids are going to watch bad stuff, hear bad stuff, and still turn out all right,"
Dr. Taylor says, adding this is why parents need to establish values when kids are young and help them to view the media with a critical eye.

"There's very little that going to interfere with a parent who's really plugged into their children's lives,"
agrees Dr. Sternheimer. "Playing a video game or seeing a single movie won't override that."

Decision Time
The next time your child wants to watch, read, or listen to something that turns you off, consider two points before making a decision. First, ask yourself why you object to the content. Does the message conflict with your values, or are you reacting to something new and unfamiliar to your generation? Next if the medium is a book or movie with a scene or theme that you find questionable, think about using it as an opportunity to introduce to your child a difficult topic like racism or mental illness before she gets sketchy information about the subject from her peers.

However if the entertainment clearly violates your moral and ethical beliefs, it shouldn't be allowed in your home. Discuss your decision with your kids so they understand your objections, even if they don't agree with them. Hopefully they'll take those lessons with them when they're away from home and have to think for themselves.

"You can't lock them in a cage," Dr. Taylor says, "But you can protect them until they're old enough and arm them with the tools they need. Teach them how to use pop culture instead of being used by it."

By Deborah Bohn