For one mom, previews and context are key

Annie likes her kids to know what to expect in media. And she prefers to know what they’ll encounter in advance. She screens and previews most of the content seen or heard by her 15-year-old son Eli and her 11-year-old daughter, Margaret.

NPR does not come on while they’re in the car with her, she said, because she doesn’t want them to be surprised by things they may not be prepared to hear.

Approved for Annie's 15-year-old son, but she reads it first

Approved for Annie’s 15-year-old son, but only if she reads it first

Annie said she previews in part because she knows how much inappropriate content is out there and it worries her.

“Everything concerns me about media!” Annie said.  “There’s so much access to stuff that I wouldn’t have seen until my mid-20s, and now an 8-year-old can access it.”

Annie’s family does not have cable service and they only receive two TV channels. Her kids have fairly open access to the Internet, and they’re allowed to watch shows on PBS and via Netflix, as long as Annie knows what they are.

Context is very important to her, she said, especially regarding the social situations in which her kids encounter certain media messages. When her son wanted to read Game of Thrones and see the TV series adaptation, she speed-read the first book and then stayed one book ahead of him as he read it. She then watched the TV show with him, so they could talk about some of the more mature elements in it.

“I wouldn’t have let him watch it on his own, or with a bunch of his friends,” Annie said.

She added that she tries to strike a balance between monitoring and keeping channels of communication open with him.

“Do I risk having him sneak around and read it anyway,” she said, “or do I actively participate it in with him?”

Context in the story is also important to her. She took Eli to see the movie Skyfall, and she said she was comfortable with the violent content because it was relevant within the narrative of a spy story. This standard applies to both violence and sex, she said.

“I don’t forbid my kids from seeing it, but it needs to be relevant to the storyline.”

Annie added that she thinks the amount of sexual content in the Game of Thrones books is excessive.

Her kids are also on social media. Eli uses Facebook and Reddit, and follows several blogs. Margaret uses Club Penguin, but she’s only allowed to send pre-written ‘postcards’ to other users, and she may not share personal information about herself.

Annie credits Margaret’s school for teaching kids about trust, respect, and not posting photos of themselves or others in bad situations. She is impressed with the guidance they provide, and said it boosts her confidence in her kids’ ability to manage online interactions.

She anticipates her kids becoming a bit more secretive as they get older, but she is confident that they’ll come and talk with her about issues they encounter. She occasionally glances at Eli’s laptop if he leaves it open, but she said she has never seen anything that concerns her.

“It’s a very open communication thing,” she said, “and it involves a lot of trust.”


One mom says no to media violence, but yes to sex


Adrienne does NOT understand why so many parents want this covered.

Adrienne considers moving to Europe on a regular basis. Why? Because there is sex in the media there. She doesn’t like the weird issues Americans have around sex, and she thinks Europeans’ more “blasé” approach is healthier.

“Sex is a normal part of adult life, and that’s kind of the attitude in Europe,” she said.

Adrienne is the mother is two-year-old Aria, and she doesn’t shield her daughter’s eyes from images of women’s naked breasts, like many other parents would.

“It seems like a weird crusade to protect kids from seeing sex,” she said, “since that’s how they got here in the first place.”

The media content Adrienne definitely will try to protect Aria from is excessive violence. It bothers her that characters in children’s movies and even cartoons are killed or maimed on a regular basis.

Adrienne hopes that Aria is developing a healthy understanding of violence and aggression, in part because her father is a martial artist. But she still struggles with the messages she knows her daughter sees in the media.

“It’s so weird and hypocritical for us to tell them not to hit each other,” she said, “and then it’s [supposed to be] funny when they see it on TV. “

She plans to expose Aria to specific types of media content gradually, as she thinks her daughter is ready to think critically and talk about what she’s seeing. Adrienne said she’ll know it’s time for something new when Aria asks questions about it, but she doesn’t know at what age to expect that.

“I don’t know what those intervals are yet,” she said, “because I haven’t met her in the future.”

Adrienne does not agree with the approach many parents have, which is to prevent children from seeing sexual content altogether.

“If you think that you can keep sex away from your child, you are craaaazy,” she said. “They will find it. It will find them.”

Adrienne said she would rather give her daughter good, healthy information about sex than have her learn wrong things from peers or some media messages. She added that her own father let her watch movies with sexual content at a young age, but the real problem was that she felt like she couldn’t discuss sex with him. Adrienne very much wishes he had considered what the messages were in those movies, and had a conversation with her about them at the time.

“We did NOT talk about it,” she said, “and that right there is the problem.”


A father balances cultural literacy with TV-free kids

Matt grew up watching a fair amount of television: about an hour on an average day. That wasn’t necessarily a good thing, in his opinion.

He, his wife Natalya, and their three children watch so little TV that, during a recent vacation, the children assumed the set in the house they rented didn’t work because they never saw it turned on.

A bookshelf with children's books in English and Russian

The media of choice for Matt and Natalya’s three children

Matt and Natalya were not big TV watchers even before they became parents.

“We never had a TV,” he said. “But we did consciously decide not to go and buy one when our kids got old enough to watch TV. We were a bit afraid of using it as a hypnosis device/babysitter.”

Their home living room has no television set, but shelves and shelves of books in English and Russian, which is Natalya’s native tongue. Matt and his wife surround their children, ages 8, 4, and 2, with reading material in both languages.

“The kids read tons of books, we’ve always had a lot of books around the house,” Matt said.  “We encourage the kids to use books as distractions on car rides and stuff. We encourage them to read as much as they can.”

They also listen to the radio quite a bit at home, and they let the children watch videos online from time to time.

“It’s sort of a special thing,” Matt said. “Like right before bed or a reward for something.”

He added that the children don’t really browse the Internet at all, they only watch the videos their parents select for them.

Matt wants Anya, age 8, to develop reading literacy first, so she can “extract useful information from text before we let her loose on the Internet.”

Anya is beginning to choose non-fiction books at the library, but her father realizes that there are many things one doesn’t learn about as easily from books.

“I learned a lot about the outside world by watching TV,” Matt said. “Reading books doesn’t show you how people dress, or what other cities look like.”

He worries that, some day, the children may not understand jokes made by their peers, or references to pop culture.

“If you don’t get the jokes and humor,” he said, “it can be a barrier to making friends.”

Another issue Matt foresees in his children’s limited exposure to screens is their capacity for media literacy. He hopes that he and his wife will be able to help the children develop a skeptical response to messages in media, but he realizes that some television viewing may be necessary to accomplish that.

“We’ll gradually expose them to these things,” he said. “Probably when they’re a little older and we feel they have a better sense of judgment, and are more questioning in general of things that people tell them.”


No zombies allowed

Boys jumping off a dock into a lakeJudy’s family has lived in three cities on two continents, and one thing has always set their home apart from those around them: there are no video games allowed.

Her sons, 11-year-old Warren and 8-year-old Andrew (right, on a lake vacation), are allowed to play them at friends’ houses, and she knows they generally favor sports games. But Judy does not allow them to play violent games, and she draws the line at having a console at home.

“I just don’t like it,” she said. “I don’t want it in my house.”

Her primary objection to such media is that she observes kids becoming hooked on them too easily.

When her kids are playing video games, she said, “they get this kind of zombie look that overtakes their expression.”

In contrast, when her boys are playing outside and having fun doing other things, she said they seem to forget what she refers to as the ‘siren call’ of media entertainment. Judy takes very seriously her responsibility to help her children make good choices regarding media.

“Your job as a parent,” she said, “is to teach them to resist stuff that gives them a quick high, but isn’t good for them in the end.”

She’s frequently surprised by comments she hears from other parents, when they say they don’t feel like they can really say no to all of their kids’ media demands.

“I was like, turn. It .Off,” she said. “You’re the parent.”

Judy knows how hard companies work to counter such actions by parents. She worked for many years in market segmentation, and observed first-hand the strategies and techniques companies use to target children.

As a parent, she said, she wants to protect her children from such manipulation, but also ensure they have the knowledge and experience with technology that they need in the 21st century.

At the start of this school year, she decided to let her 11-year-old have an old iPhone, to keep up with his peers. They went over the family rules about it, and talked about cyber bullying and other issues. Her son recently came home with a question that hints at the years to come:

“Someone said they want to be my friend on Facebook. What does that mean?”


Digital natives, tablets, and dinner time peace

An iPad, an iPad mini, a Nexus, two laptops, a desktop computer, Apple TV, and two iPhones: these are the tech contents of Stefani’s house, where she lives with her husband and their sons, 3-year-old Porter and 5-year-old Graysen.

tablet-pile_for_Stef_postHer husband is a software developer, so they’re used to having the latest technology available. When it came time to select a school for the boys, Stefani said they specifically sought one with ‘smart’ classrooms that use interactive screens. She knows that her older son especially learns a great deal using apps, and is used to the interface.

“If you took them from an iPad world,” she said, “and put them in front of a chalkboard, they would be like, ‘what’s this?’”

At home, too, the boys are true ‘digital natives,’ who are comfortable with any and all technology and see it as just another one of their toys. Stefani said they feel as if they should have the right to pick up any tablet nearby and start watching something on it.

“They feel really entitled,” she said, and they don’t like to be told not to use the devices. “They’re like, ‘what do you mean, I can’t watch a movie?’”

Stefani said she limits their use when she notices they’ve been on screens for too long in a single day. At that point, she said, the family will often go for an outing together.

“It’s really important to me that they’re active,” she said. “I want them to engage, and be creative, and do projects, and play outside.”

One time when she generally does not say no to screens is during dinner. Her boys beg for technology, she says, to watch something during the meal. She and her husband generally give in, she said, “because we want to eat in peace.”

They don’t use any ‘nanny’ software to block content yet, she said, because the boys can’t use the devices away from the parents’ watchful gaze. Stefani said she monitors content closely, because she knows how a scary movie or image can affect a child. When she was under 10 years old, she was terrified after being allowed to watch movies like “The Shining” and “The Amityville Horror.”

Her mother thought it wouldn’t be that bad, she said, but “I was scarred as a child.”

Although Stefani shields her kids from potentially frightening content and only lets them see G-rated movies, she doesn’t have strong opinions against media in general.

“It is what it is, it’s the world we live in.”

A Kindle, pixels, and moral lessons

Lorelei does not let her son watch TV for one primary reason: the commercials. She is opposed to the values that advertising promotes, and she’d rather 5-year-old Sebastian didn’t absorb their “messages of material consumption.”

pic_for_Lorelei_postInstead, Sebastian’s digital device of choice is a Kindle Fire, which his mother says he uses to play video games and watch occasional videos (pre-screened by her) on Netflix and YouTube.

She has a mixed opinion of video games, having been an avid player of them in her 20s. On the positive side, she says, they can help develop hand-eye coordination, teach problem-solving and math skills, and encourage reading. In her opinion, multi-player games can even help the user learn social skills and people management.

One category Lorelei generally says no to is violent video games such as first-person shooters and Grand Theft Auto, which she describes as “morally corrupt.” She does not believe that these games directly cause people to commit violence, but she does have a problem with some of the actions a player can take in such games, such as hitting a prostitute with one’s car to steal money from her.

While she generally doesn’t have an issue with kids killing unreal monsters – such as zombies – in a game, she doesn’t like her son to engage in the more realistic violence in games like GTA. In such a situation, Lorelei does not relish making the distinction to a five-year-old between violence in real life and in the game world.

“Trying to explain why it’s not okay to kill a hooker but you can run down a pixelated one is MUCH harder,” she says.

Lorelei uses the Kindle as a privilege to help teach Sebastian manners and money management. He rarely gets to use it at the dinner table, and when he asks for an app that must be purchased, he earns it by doing age-appropriate chores.

As a parent, Lorelei strives for balance in her son’s use of the device.

“It’s lovely to be able to get things done around the house and work on my own projects with him fully occupied,” she says. “On the other hand, I strive to encourage him to find OTHER things to occupy himself with, such as reading or art or playing outside.”

Lorelei is amazed by and sometimes concerned about the level of access to media Sebastian’s generation has. She compares it to her own childhood, when media consisted of four TV channels and an Atari console at a friend’s house. She recalls Saturday morning cartoons as the apex of her week, with regard to media.

“We had to wait for one day a week, and it only lasted like two hours.”