Superbowl commercial bingo

SB-commercial-bingoIt’s that time of year again. This Sunday, make watching the big game a teachable moment for your kids. Encourage them to watch the commercials more closely and critically than they usually do, and to identify ways that the advertisers try to get their attention.

Download this free 4-pack of bingo cards. Each card has a unique mix of 25 squares, which are individual elements they might see in a commercial. Two examples are: “Features a celebrity” and “Makes unbelievable claims about a product.” They’re parent-approved as appropriate for kids age 10 and older.

As they watch the game, kids can draw an X over a square when they see a commercial that matches the element in it. Prizes can be given for a row and/or a ‘blackout’ when the entire card is filled in. Parents or teachers can use this game as a conversation starter to get kids talking about what they saw in the commercials. For suggestions, download the parent/educator guide.

Why adolescence really IS harder today

It’s tempting for those of us who survived adolescence to say to histrionic teenagers, “Oh, it’s not that bad. Stop being so dramatic.” While it is true that the hormone-addled and fast-changing adolescent brain tends to make emotional mountains of molehills, teens today may be encountering far more molehills than we did.

Carrie_SissySpacek

Sissy Spacek in Brian De Palma’s “Carrie” (1976)

I recently watched the 1976 horror film “Carrie” again for the first time in a decade, and I was struck by its portrayal of adolescence. Shy, withdrawn Carrie is humiliated by her peers, kept in the dark about puberty by her uber-religious mother, and seems only to find peace alone in her bedroom.

How different would Carrie’s experience be with the technology so ubiquitous among today’s teens? Unless she checked her smartphone at the door and didn’t glance at it until the next day (difficult for the most self-disciplined among us), the awful girls who throw tampons and sanitary pads at her in the locker room would follow her home and into her room every night. She would be tortured by texts, tweets, and invasive IMs on Facebook long after she walked out of the school where she was so miserable.

According to statistics on cyber bullying, more than half of teens have been bullied online, and about the same percentage do not tell their parents about it. Teens also open themselves up to harsh criticism, such as when they post “am I pretty?” videos online. Adolescents’ need for acceptance and lack of impulse control becomes a potent cocktail mixed with the immediacy and connectivity of the Internet and social media.

The fact that so many teens keep silent about their experiences is not surprising; when I was a teen, I wasn’t eager to tell my parents about humiliations at school. But I also felt safe once I got home. If I wanted to, I could talk to my friends on the phone. If I didn’t feel like it, or if I was being harassed, I could take the phone off the hook and shut it all out for the night. The screen of my teen years, television, only comforted and entertained me.

Teens who have smartphones and are being bullied online drag home a blinking, chirping ball-and-chain that reminds them constantly of who doesn’t like them, who thinks they’re ugly, and what these people plan to inflict on them the next day. It’s no wonder so many adolescents are losing sleep.

What can parents do? It’s not a perfect solution, and your teen may hate you for it in the moment, but taking away their devices after a certain time each night might provide the temporary sanctuary they don’t even know they need.

 

Forget tobacco, this is the new threat to teen health

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have some good news and some bad news for parents. The good news is that your teen is significantly less likely to smoke than you were at her age. Teens today are also far less likely to get into physical fights than teens were 20 years ago.

texting-while-drivingThe bad news, according to a recent study, is that many teens aren’t paying attention behind the wheel. The CDC’s national survey found that ‘41 percent of [high school] students who had driven a car or other vehicle during the past 30 days reported texting or emailing while driving.’

Many teens (and adults!) think they can safely tap at their smartphone’s screen and still pay attention to the road. The statistics prove otherwise. Fatalities due to distracted driving rose by 28 percent between 2005 and 2008, and the age group most likely to be involved in fatal collisions was 16- to 29-year-olds. Male drivers are more than twice as likely to be involved in such accidents as are female drivers.

Government officials are clearly aware of the problem; 37 states and the District of Columbia have banned all cell phone use by novice drivers. But law enforcement is not the most influential authority in most teens’ lives. Parents are.

It’s a well-known fact in child and adolescent psychology that young people pay attention to the behavior modeled by grown-ups – parents, especially. It should come as no surprise, then, that a study by AT&T found that 41 percent of teens reported that their parents text while driving. Teens can sense this disconnect; 77 percent agreed with the statement, ‘adults say that kids should not text or e-mail while driving, but they do it themselves – all the time.’

80s_AntiDrugAdIf you’re the parent of a teen, or a child soon-to-be a teen, check your own driving habits. You may remember the old anti-drug TV ad (right) that concluded, ‘Parents who use drugs have children who use drugs.’ The ad is a bit heavy-handed, but it drives the point home (pun intended) about parents who text or e-mail behind the wheel.

 

 

 

A librarian’s take on why so many teens stop reading

Common Sense Media released some discouraging news last week: when kids reach their teen years, they tend to read much less. At age 9, 53% of kids report reading daily. By age 17, only 19% do. Teens don’t seek out fun reading as much as they may have when they were younger; nearly half of all 17-year-olds say they read for pleasure only once or twice a year.

NaomiBates_Twitter

Follow Naomi on Twitter @yabooksandmore

Naomi Bates is a ‘teacher librarian with a twist of technology’ at a high school in Justin, Texas. Teens’ neglect of pleasure reading is no mystery to her, and she knows how to re-engage them. Last year, Bates launched a reading program in her school that incorporated Twitter, and the response was dramatic: 400 kids participated, and they read a total of 5,000 titles – an average of 18 books per student over the course of the school year.

Bates said Twitter was key to attracting students’ attention.

“When I tweeted about a particular book, kids asked about it,” she said. “They wanted to check it out.”

Bates used social media to engage kids because she knows why teens’ appetite for books wanes. Three things happen when they enter high school. First, there’s more competition for their time, and socializing takes precedence over reading. For many teens, joining groups is so much more important than spending time with a book.

“They’ll put in 20 hours a week on the football field,” Bates said, “but not on reading.”

Second, the amount of reading they’re required to do in their classes is higher than it was in middle or elementary school, and that leaves less time to read for fun. Third, technology that allows them to be connected to others occupies more of their attention.

“It’s about building their social lives,” she said, “and that really takes precedence.”

Many of the students in her school who are most enthusiastic about reading enjoy anime graphic novels, and they engage in discussion and interaction via social media with others about the books. By engaging more reluctant readers via Twitter, Bates taps into this adolescent drive to connect.

Bates also emphasized the need for parents to model reading at home. She said teens who see their parents reading and enjoying books are more likely to seek out reading in their spare time.

“Kids model parents’ behavior, and that’s what it boils down to,” she said. “You can’t just tell your kids, ‘you need to read more.’ Typically a teen’s attitude is, ‘well, you don’t do it, why should I?’”

Bates advises parents to expand their definition of reading when it comes to teens. E-books, magazines, comic books and graphic novels can all capture teens’ attention and open the door to a lifelong reading habit.

 

A major effect of media violence that is rarely talked about

When we hear ‘media violence’ and ‘youth’ in the same sentence, most of us tend to worry that young people will become violent because of what they see on a screen. But there is another effect of media violence that rarely gets the attention it deserves: the fear it cultivates in us, that the world is a much scarier place than it actually is.

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit - Season 14

Despite how the media make it seem, danger does not lurk around every corner.

All media messages are representations, and few of them reflect reality accurately. An especially dramatic example of the discrepancy between the two is related to kidnappings. If you watch enough television dramas, you see kidnappings left, right, and center. On programs like CSI and Law and Order, it seems that few children arrive home safely at the end of the day. News media, which are supposedly based in reality, dramatically over-report kidnappings and other crimes as a matter of course. Parenting magazines tend to report alarming figures such as, “every 40 seconds in the United States, a child becomes missing or is abducted.”

Contrast all this terror on the screen and the page with actual statistics about child abductions in the U.S. It’s true that thousands of children go missing every year, but the vast majority are taken by family members or acquaintances and are recovered quickly. According to the Department of Justice, only about 115 children and adolescents are abducted each year in ‘stereotypical kidnappings’ like those depicted on TV. This may seem like a lot, but the population of the U.S. under age 18 is about 74,300,000. That’s means there’s about a one-in-a-million chance that a child will be abducted CSI-style in a given year. The likelihood of it happening on any given day is smaller still, practically zero.

These statistics would be comforting if the media would only share them with us. Instead we’re barraged by stories and images of kidnapping, murder, and mayhem. Media researchers have known for decades that prolonged exposure to such media portrayals tend to make us believe that they depict the world accurately. It’s called ‘cultivation:’ heavy exposure to violence in media can cultivate a person’s belief that the rate of crime and violence in her neighborhood is higher than it actually is. In fact, crime in most U.S. cities is at a historic low. But the media tell us otherwise. The media make us more fearful than we should be.

So what does all this media-induced fear mean for parents and kids? Why should we care?

Fear is bad for mental health. Children’s perception of risk in their surroundings can be strongly affected by news media; one study found that children and teens who were heavy viewers of news were more worried that they might be abducted than light viewers were. The news is powerful enough, in fact, that coverage of a traumatic event can cause a viewer to experience more stress than she would witnessing the event first-hand. In a study of people who either directly witnessed the Boston Marathon bombing or watched heavy news coverage of the event, higher levels of acute stress were reported by the media users. Typical media coverage of a horrific event spins the same scary footage over and over, and can cultivate in our minds the idea that awful things are continuing to happen.

Fear is bad for physical health. In 1969, 48% of children age 5 – 14 usually walked or bicycled to school. In 2009, only 13% did (source). Today’s kids also play outside far less frequently than their parents did, and one survey of mothers revealed that 61% cited ‘lack of adult supervision and a fear of physical harm to their child’ as a primary reason for keeping their kids inside. Fear can also cause stress and anxiety which, left unchecked, can contribute to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes (source). And as any parent knows, many kids absorb their parents’ emotional states easily. A fearful, anxious parent can have a fearful, anxious child.

Fear can lead to more violence. Following a mass shooting that receives heavy media coverage, gun purchases often spike. More guns in homes allow for more gun-related accidents, and CDC figures demonstrate that guns are among the top ten causes of unintentional deaths of children age 1 – 14. Fear of crime in the world outside can also cause individuals to suspect neighbors and take unwarranted action against them, as George Zimmerman did when he shot unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012. Last but not least, it’s well-known among media researchers that growing up in a violent, fear-inducing environment can make children more likely to act aggressively after seeing violence portrayed in media.

As parents, we can set examples for our children by not being scared by the overdose of violence in media. We can talk with them realistically about risk: what it makes sense to be cautious about, and what the media blow out of proportion. We can teach them that news reporters don’t tell us about the thousands of flights that land without a problem every day, and the tens of millions of U.S. kids who make it home safely.

More resources:

 

‘Your Baby Can Read’ was a waste of money, research confirms

Screenshot of commercial for 'Your Baby Can Read"You might remember the best-selling DVD set, ‘Your Baby Can Read.’ The multi-volume kit came with flash cards and a picture book presumably meant to reinforce the lessons on screen. TV commercials for the product used pseudo-scientific diagrams to suggest that babies’ fast-developing brains are ripe for this kind of instruction. The company implied that infants as young as 9 months could recognize words after watching the videos and using the accompanying materials.

The makers of ‘Your Baby Can Read’ went out of business in 2012, after a complaint was filed with the Federal Trade Commission by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. NBC’s Today show featured an investigative report that questioned claims made about the product. In the midst of all the controversy, researchers at NYU conducted a randomized trial to see if the product lived up to its claims, and – because academic publishing moves at a snail’s pace – those results have just come out.

The study tracked 117 infants (ages 9 to 18 months) over a period of 7 months. Parents of infants in the test group used ‘Your Baby Can Read’ according to the makers’ instructions, so each infant would watch 70 hours of DVD training and receive 45 hours of interaction using the flash cards and picture books. The researchers measured the outcomes in multiple ways, and found no significant difference in developmental reading skills between the test group and the control group.

Claims implied in the TV commercials, that babies who had used the program could recognize words and respond to written directions (e.g., ‘clap your hands!’) were not supported by the study’s findings.

Did the program likely do any damage to infants? Probably not, but sitting a baby in front of a DVD for 20 minutes a day goes against recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics not to use screen media for children under age 2.

The next time you see an ‘educational’ media product making claims that seem too good to be true, remember: they probably are.

 

Superbowl commercial bingo – a critical thinking game

SuperbowlBingo_featuredimageThis Sunday, make watching the big game a teachable moment for your kids. Encourage them to watch the commercials more closely and critically than they usually do, and to identify ways that the advertisers try to get their attention.

Download this free 4-pack of bingo cards. Each card has a unique mix of 25 squares, which are individual elements they might see in a commercial. Two examples are: “Features a celebrity” and “Makes unbelievable claims about a product.” They’re parent-approved as appropriate for kids age 10 and older.

As they watch the game, kids can draw an X over a square when they see a commercial that matches the element in it. Prizes can be given for a row and/or a ‘blackout’ when the entire card is filled in. Parents or teachers can use this game as a conversation starter to get kids talking about what they saw in the commercials. For suggestions, download the Parent/Educator Guide.

 

 

 

Reality show on teen pregnancy reduces the real thing

16-and-Pregnant_screenshotIt turns out, reality TV stars may not all be the role-models-from-hell that so many parents fear. While no one has studied the impact of Jersey Shore to my knowledge, they have looked at the effects of MTV’s 16 and Pregnant. I was surprised to learn that this series – along with its Teen Mom spinoffs – may have actually reduced the rate of teen pregnancy during the time it was first broadcast.

Researchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research studied Google searches, Twitter activity, and teenage girls’ childbirth rates during the period between 2009 and 2012 when the series were first broadcast. They found that search engine activity related to the series and to birth control increased following the show’s introduction. Tweets about the series and about birth control also increased. As the researchers state, this suggests that the show “had some influence on [viewers] in a way that could potentially change their behavior.”

In addition, researchers looked at the statistics for teens giving birth, specifically for those who would have conceived during the year-and-a-half when 16 and Pregnant was first broadcast. Statistical analysis suggests that the show contributed to a 5.7 percent reduction in teen births during the sample period. This accounts for approximately one-third of all the overall reduction in teen births during that time. The researchers attribute much of the rest to effects of the recession.

Why did the series make some teens think twice? Researchers examined the content and themes of the episodes, and observed that the shows depict:

  • Little use of birth control; three-quarters of the girls in the series said they were not using contraception when they became pregnant.
  • Extensive sleep deprivation.
  • Strained relationships with the father of the child; more than half of the couples were having difficulties or had broken up at the end of the episode.
  • Negative impacts on the health and well-being of the teen mother herself.

teen_mom_magazine_coverI was especially surprised by these findings, as many of my own college students have written term papers in which they theorized that such shows glamorize teen pregnancy by turning the teen moms into celebrities. But not all teens perceive the shows and their cast members this way. A survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found that 77 percent of teens who watch 16 and Pregnant said that it helps them “better understand the challenges of pregnancy and parenthood.” In contrast, 23 percent said it made “pregnancy and parenthood look easy and fun.”

This study demonstrates the power of the media to educate young people (for better or worse) and make them think about risks and the decisions they make every day.

 

An expert talks about effects of media violence

It’s early January, it’s frigid outside, and many kids are still home on winter break. Violent video games and movies are likely occupying the attention of some of them. This week, I picked the brain of an internationally known expert about the effects of media violence on children.

Craig_Anderson_headshotDr. Craig A. Anderson is a Professor of Psychology at Iowa State University and the Director of the Center for the Study of Violence. He is also the father of two, a boy and a girl, who are now in their twenties.

Misunderstandings about media violence

“Most people don’t think that media violence has much of an impact on aggressive behavior in general,” Anderson said. “There are a lot of reasons for that, among them that the press has not done a good job of conveying accurately what the research shows.”

He cites studies that show that mainstream media coverage misrepresents the research, and that the misrepresentation has become worse over the last 10 years. Reporters tend to oversimplify the problem, and counter claims that media violence directly causes violent behavior.

“Those of us who study media violence effects do not claim, and have never claimed, that media violence is the only – or even the primary – cause of aggression,” Anderson said. “That would be foolish. We often get characterized as saying that…but it’s a position that none of us has taken.”

“What we’re really saying, and what people really need to understand, is that any of the more extreme forms of aggression, really requires multiple risk factors to be present at the same time.”

“Media violence is only one of them,” he explained. “It happens to be one that is very pervasive, that almost everyone is exposed to. It happens to be one that a large portion of the population are exposed to frequently. It happens to be one that is easy and cheap to fix, from a parent’s perspective.”

“We can’t do anything about the genetics [and] we typically can’t do a whole lot about social environment,” Anderson said.

He added that parents who more closely monitor their kids can control their social influences somewhat, but it’s still more difficult than simply monitoring a child’s media intake.

“It’s not nearly as easy as providing a healthy media diet, rather than an unhealthy one.”

What the statistics really mean

Anderson said the mainstream media tend to report that media violence effects studies demonstrate a ‘small to moderate effect,’ which doesn’t seem that concerning to an average person. But he explains that this is a statistical definition, and the term ‘small’ can misrepresent the actual risk.

“We know that some small effects can have a pretty big impact at a societal level,” he said.

Anderson points out that studies about childhood lead exposure reveal only a small to moderate effect on brain development, but we as a society have taken dramatic measures to reduce lead in homes and other buildings. He wishes we would take violent media more seriously as a threat.

Does the type of media matter?

Anderson said researchers don’t really know for sure if one type of media ‘teaches’ aggressive behavior more effectively. “Violent video games and violent screen media probably have a bigger impact than other forms…and there’s very little evidence that reading violent-themed books will have the same impact.”

Lord-of-the-Rings-MovieHe thinks that books put violence in a context more effectively than do other forms of media. As an example, he compares the amount of violence in Lord of the Rings in book and movie forms.

“What percent of time in the movie is one looking at, thinking about, and essentially cheering on violent behavior? It’s probably fifty percent, and there’s not a whole lot of context behind it.” He compares this with the books in the series, in which significantly less time is focused on violence.

“It isn’t like books have no impact…but in terms of what most adolescents are exposed to, I’d much rather have them reading about factual things about World War II than playing certain violent video games based on World War II. They’ll actually learn some history, and if it’s a well-written book, they’ll get some context about what was going on. They’ll get a feeling for the suffering of individuals who were killed and maimed, and the suffering of family members.”

What can parents do?

He says that he and most of his fellow researchers give the same advice to parents concerned about the children’s media use:

“The first thing is, you shouldn’t have any kind of gaming system available in the kids’ private space. Keep the bedroom for reading, drawing, and sleeping. But no TV, DVD player, GameBoy, Internet access, especially for the younger children, but even in high school.”

Keeping such devices in more public spaces such as the kitchen or dining room, Anderson said, makes incidental monitoring by parents and caregivers easier. The research shows that such casual supervision reduces the number of hours kids spend on inappropriate media.

Monitoring also helps parents learn more about the media their children are actually using. Anderson said surveys show that kids often don’t reveal what their real favorite media are if they think their parents will find out. Some falsely claim they watch the Disney channel, and the parents might not question that.

“Parents frequently don’t know what their kids are doing,” he said.

There is evidence that active parental involvement, particularly ongoing discussions about why certain media are inappropriate, can help in two ways: it can decrease the amount of such media content the children seek out, and it can help children understand acceptable and unacceptable uses of violence in the real world.

Such conversations do not inoculate children against violent media content, but they do seem to help limit their effects.

“There is evidence that it provides a protective layer,” he said. “They’re still harmed, but they don’t seem to be as harmed.”

But my kid is OK, right?

Anderson cautions parents against assuming that their own children are immune to effects of violent media content, even if other children are affected. This assumption is known as the ‘third-person effect,’ and Anderson sees it frequently in his work.

“These effects occur even if you don’t feel them occurring.” He compares it with eating a huge cheeseburger; you don’t feel your cholesterol rising, but it’s happening nonetheless. For better or worse, children learn lessons from media about how to resolve conflict, how to treat others, and when it’s appropriate to behave aggressively.

He encourages parents to have ongoing conversations with kids, comparing their values with what they see on the screen: “What’s important to us? What’s important to our family? How does the real world work?”

“You can convey this idea that it isn’t appropriate,” Anderson said. “That we don’t bully others, that we don’t talk to people in this harmful way, that all of these are forms of aggression.”