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.


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.

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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.”


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.


PG-13 = more guns

'White House Down' movie poster depicting a character with a large gun

One of many PG-13-rated movies with a high level of gun violence.

Your 14-year-old wants to see a movie, and before you say yes, you look up the rating: PG-13. No worries, right? But a new study to be published next month in the journal Pediatrics reports that gun violence in movies with a PG-13 rating has actually surpassed that of R-rated movies.

The researchers looked at the 30 most popular films for every year since 1950, and they counted the number of scenes depicting gun violence, defined as “shooting a gun and hitting a living target,” excluding scenes of target practice or hunting animals. They found that the level of gun violence in PG-13-rated movies has increased significantly since 1985, and now exceeds that in R-rated movies. Even the overall level of such violence in PG-rated movies is now about equal to that in R-rated movies.

These findings are especially troubling for two reasons, according to the researchers: First, PG-13 movies are popular, and make up more than one-half of revenues for the top films of all ratings. Teenagers are not restricted from seeing them, so they attract huge audiences.

Second, past research has demonstrated that the mere presence of a gun can ‘prime’ people to behave more aggressively. Researchers call this the ‘weapons effect,’ and a later study showed the effect exists even when people only heard words describing weapons.

What can a parent do? An important first step is to educate yourself about movie ratings: read the MPAA’s guidelines for content given PG, PG-13, and R ratings. In addition, Common Sense Media provides parent-oriented, in-depth reviews of most new releases, to help you decide whether a particular movie is appropriate for your child.

Next week: How to watch a violent movie with your teenager, while encouraging him/her to have a media-literate response to it.


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.”