How to watch protest coverage with your teen


Contrasting media portrayals of protestors in Ferguson, MO

News coverage, photos, videos, and social media posts related to the protests following the grand jury’s decision in Ferguson are everywhere. Some of it is verified information presented in a neutral way, but much of it is opinion and portrayals made with a particular bias. How can you help your teen think critically about what s/he is seeing? Here are some conversation starters.

How many people are actually protesting peacefully, and how many seem to be destructive? The news media and social media tend to focus more on violence, in part because the dramatic images attract more attention. But aiming the camera only at the violent actions of relatively few can misrepresent the behavior of many. Encourage your teen to watch and listen for the mentions of peaceful protestors and people who are trying to help rather than cause damage.

What are the facts, and what are the opinions? If your teen follows social media posts about the event, it’s especially important for them to recognize that not all statements made there are accurate. Some social media users create legitimate “citizen journalism” and report facts that the traditional media outlets may miss, but many post their own opinion as if it were fact. Encourage your teen to try to distinguish between the two.

What’s the background of the story, and where’s the best place to find it? Social media feeds and random Google searches often turn up only snippets of a story, or opinions about it. Encourage your teen to read ongoing comprehensive coverage of the cause of the protests from traditional news media such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the BBC.

How do you think your own opinions might make you see this a certain way? If we’re being honest, few of us would claim to be 100% prejudice-free. Encourage your teen to think about how s/he relates to the people being portrayed in media coverage, and how other people might interpret the coverage differently.


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.”


How to watch a violent movie with a teenager

A scene from the 2013 film 'G.I. Joe: Retaliation.'

A scene from ‘G.I. Joe: Retaliation,’ one of the top-grossing movies of 2013.

It’s not news to anyone who lives in the U.S. that our movies are becoming more violent. And unless your child exists in an opaque, soundproof bubble, s/he will likely encounter violence in movies starting in early adolescence. Many kids enjoy being scared, and some even tend to be drawn toward gory, violent content in media. Others encounter it by accident, often in spite of parents’ efforts to prevent such exposure.

The good news is that media violence does not have a huge effect on behavior overall. Young people like the Columbine High School shooters or the Aurora movie theater shooter are outliers, extreme examples of media content affecting a person’s subsequent decisions and actions. The vast majority of young people who watch characters on screen shoot people and/or maim them will not enact such things themselves. Numerous external factors play a part in an individual’s capacity to imitate such behavior, including the level of violence in the home environment, the availability of weapons, and the person’s own psychological tendencies.

The bad news is that media violence does have some effect, and not just on outliers. One study, among others, demonstrated that exposure to a violent TV show caused children to become desensitized to aggressive behavior they later witnessed. In another study, children’s exposure to violent video games was associated with lower levels of empathy. Research on the ‘cultivation’ effect shows that people in general may perceive the world to be a scarier place than it is, due to exposure to media messages portraying it as such.

What can parents and other adults do to help a teenager evaluate media violence in a productive, critical way? Here are some conversation starters:

“How many people has this guy killed?” Encourage the teen to keep a body count, especially if the character doing a lot of killing is the hero of the story. Ask him/her where all the dead people are, as most movies tend to gloss over the consequences of what are essentially multiple homicides.

“That man’s family won’t ever seen him again.” When an innocent bystander is killed, it’s frequently depicted as no big deal in a shoot-’em-up movie. Encourage your teen to reflect on the fact that every body was a human being, with friends and a family. This may help counter the desensitization effect.

“If he’s killing so many people, why is he the good guy?” Hollywood movies tend to glamorize heroes and make light of their violent actions. Some heroes might kill for good reasons, such as saving otherwise doomed hostages. But many heroes kill for no good reason, and such deaths are often portrayed as necessary, inconsequential, or even humorous. Encouraging a teen to think about the hero’s character and decisions can start a good conversation about which actions are truly heroic, and which are unnecessary destruction.

The aim of all these conversations-starters is to prompt kids to think critically about what they’re seeing. People of all ages are less likely to have a purely affective response to media (as in, ‘wow, cool!’) if we engage cognitively with it.

Coming soon: An expert’s take on playing violent video games with your child.


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.”