Quality, quantity key to putting kids on a 'media diet' : Friday, Oct. 31, 2003
October 30 2003 by Steve Sumerel

Quality, quantity key to putting kids on a 'media diet' : Friday, Oct. 31, 2003
Friday, Oct. 31, 2003

Quality, quantity key to putting kids on a 'media diet'

By Steve Sumerel
"You are what you consume." This slight rewording of an old expression invites parents to contemplate the spiritual and emotional results of the media diet a child may consume.

A diet is best defined by the quality and the quantity of what is consumed. Thus, it is very difficult to be a media savvy parent in our consumer-oriented society. We use marketplace standards that are based on our need to buy (consume) without even realizing it. How does the marketplace sway parental decisions on the quality and quantity of a healthy media diet?


"Sure, I let my child watch that movie. There was really not that much wrong with it...a few bad words, but he hears those at school." This is a statement that I made, and it shows how the marketplace can reverse logical reasoning.

It would be well for parents to ask the better question, "What is the value of this TV show in the development of my child?" If a program is entertaining enough to keep a child occupied, it tends to pass the test for many parents. In the absence of anything that is really objectionable, a parent may think the entertainment value is enough. Because most of it is not "poison," our consumer mentality deems it nutritious.


This nation's high standard of living depends on its citizens' desire and ability to consume in ever increasing amounts. The culture reinforces the need to consume in many overt and subtle ways. The results can be seen in the lifestyles of our children.

Often parents will attempt to balance TV viewing by getting new video games. Video habits are softened by more music CD's. This trend helps to keep our economy going, but it does so at high cost to our children.

Happy are those who

are, well, happy

Every parent knows how hard media try to attract children but parents should not make the mistake of assuming that children are the only targets. Marketers know that when children are happy, parents are happy.

Entertainment is the primary commodity of child-oriented media outlets. However, although the entertainment is geared toward children, it is sold to parents. Overexposure to media by children is not primarily a child development issue. It is a consumption problem of the parent.

As parents become unwitting consumers of child entertainment, the marketplace is able to define more of what parents consider valuable. An increasing number of parents have come to expect the same level of glitzy amusement for their children, whether they are watching TV or listening to a Bible story on Sunday morning.

Seeing the problem in the mirror

Parental ownership of the problem puts parents closer to the problem and its solution. A change in consumption habits must begin with the parent, not the child. So what is a parent to do?

1. Parents need to examine their own values. If parents value something beyond entertainment, this should be reflected at home. Media outlets cannot be turned off without creating a void. It is difficult to know what to bring to the emptiness without some reflection on what is really important.

2. Parents should examine their own behavior. How much do parents rely on media for getting needs met? What are the subtle lessons taught by parents through their own viewing and listening habits?

3. Parents should examine the environments they seek for themselves and their children. How much does the marketplace define your space at home, workplace or church? While standing in the arcade section of a roller rink recently, I had an overwhelming thought. "How much emptiness must we feel, to need so much noise to fill it?"

4. As parents go through the self-examination process of the first steps, they reassume their role as gatekeeper.

The walls of a family home are great at keeping out the elements, but they are worthless as a barrier to media messages. Increasingly technology is allowing families to have instant access to news, opinion and information from around the world.

The gate-keeping role is crucial in the information age.

Gate keeping is really two jobs. The first involves filtering the messages that enter the home. Some filtering is more like blocking. Parents may put certain TV shows, networks, Web sites or music groups in a "blacklist." Technological devices can help parents keep control of the on/off switch.

Parents must be careful with such devices, however. Clever as they are, technology is no substitute for parental scrutiny. Blocking media from entering your home is a difficult, thankless job. Parents rightly feel like they are trying to hold back an incoming tide.

Finer filtering methods require more parental involvement. For example, by using a videotape, a parent can allow a show to be seen, while filtering out advertising.

Parents cannot relax their vigilance when commercials come on. Studies have shown that the alcohol industry, for example, targets TV programming that has a high child/teen viewership.

There is no way for anyone to manage the total media exposure of a child and it is easy to give up. Parents should remember, however, that the second function of gate keeping takes up where filtering leaves off.

Media literacy

The most important gate-keeping role is to teach children to monitor their own media diet. Media literacy is a term used to describe the process of learning to filter media messages.

Parents should experience media with their children and interact with the messages together. A child will learn how the parent processes what is desirable or not and then can assume that role on his own.

There are excellent helps for parents in teaching media literacy. A new resource can be found at www.pbskids.org. A review of this site can be found at www.ethicsdaily.com.

Media literacy allows for an ever-present filter of interpretation. It is there when the parent is not and serves as a layer of defense before media messages can pass into a young person's mind and heart.

10/30/2003 11:00:00 PM by Steve Sumerel | with 0 comments

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