“What you’re watching is called a commercial. It’s a short show designed to make you think you need a particular product or service in order to be happy.” That was me the other day explaining television advertising to my twentysomething-month-old toddler. No, I’m not the perfect parent who avoids screen media at all costs, and although we prefer PBS Kids, my son does occasionally dip into an episode of Fixer Upper with me when I can’t bear to return outside for yet another hike in pursuit of sticks and rocks. The reality is that I’m no different than most mothers, but I am very different from most parenting writers. Instead of simply obsessing over the potential hazards of screen media and completely eliminating it from my child’s diet, I choose to use our time in front of the television the way I use our time outside—as a learning experience.
Screen media criticism is a necessary element of contemporary parenting dialogue. But, as horrifying as the stories of Minecraft-addicted elementary schoolers are, they don’t represent the majority of kids plugged into screens these days. Should our kids be spending more time outside? Absolutely. Our adults should be, too. But, the reality is that while “outside” addresses elements of the discussion like screen addiction, it doesn’t touch the issue of media awareness.
Telling our kids to go outside instead of turning on the television is like offering one toy to replace another without ever really explaining why the first toy needed to be replaced. “It’s bad for you,” has never been a good enough excuse for a kid. And don’t even try to assert that your child will inevitably be cyberbullied because he won’t believe you. The only thing he’ll want and believe is the truth. That is why parents need to teach their children how to be critical thinkers when they engage with screen media.
The conversation begins at an early age, when your child starts demanding the products they see on commercials. Experts want you to watch TV with your children and converse with them while you watch, right? So, start with the commercials. For one thing, it’ll teach them that commercial breaks were designed for audiences to take a break from the show and run to the bathroom while something less important is on (you know, advertising). They’ll innately learn how to prioritize the content they’re viewing, recognizing the difference between what they want to watch and what they’re being forced to watch. But, if they want to talk about a particular product, ask them why. Inevitably you’ll learn something about their social life: what they talk about at school, with whom and why that product is valued. Turn the discussion toward values: “Okay, Becky has this toy so everyone likes her. But, do you really want to be liked for what you have, or for who you are?”
Want your son to do more than just play video games? Try acquiring an old video game system, cell phone, or computer online or at a flea market. Let the unit become his pet project in hardware engineering and software encoding. Encourage him to design and build his own apps. Then have a good discussion about the legalities of having users under the age of 18 use the app. Teaching proactivity when it comes to addressing potential challenges is an integral life lesson, one often not learned in terms of preparing for a simple classroom test.
When we prioritize media safety at the expense of media awareness, we miss out on great conversations and learning experiences. If we want our children to truly be critical thinkers we can’t merely react to their ability to press buttons or click icons with fear and awe. Addiction and avoidance must be accompanied by awareness if we are to truly address the role of screen media in our children’s lives.