When I was a kid lying on our shag carpet, watching “The Brady Bunch” or “The Flintstones,” the world of media was a secretive, faraway place. I watched reruns on network television before supper, listened to cassettes while I did my homework, and every once in a while got my hands on a poster of KISS or Charlie’s Angels, which I taped to the inside of my bedroom closet door.
The TV Guide came each Thursday, providing glimpses of that mysterious place, but an insurmountable wall separated my existence as a citizen of the Real World and the Media World inhabited by star athletes, beautiful celebrities, and wonderful products.
What a difference 20 years makes. Today the borders between the Real World and the world of media have disappeared. Kids now choose from hundreds of specialty TV channels, download any song or video clip they desire within seconds, and keep instant contact with a host of friends around the clock.
Nielsen Net/Ratings recently announced the average web user is online for nearly nine-and-a-half hours each week. Never before has the media experience provided such a sense of entitlement. Kids now expect the stars of television to be themselves—American Idol hopefuls, recipients of a house being built for them, contestants on the best inventor/dancer/survivor show.
But kids today aren’t merely subjects of the media. They control it. They burn CDs of their favorite artists, choosing which songs they wish to purchase—not simply accepting decisions by the music industry. They communicate on their cell phones with whomever, whenever. They set up and daily maintain elaborate personal websites on MySpace.com. They film music videos, which they download to sites such as YouTube.com. They even create their own commercials for companies such as MasterCard in the hope of being chosen for a national spot on mainstream television.
As you might expect, the concern of parents and media literacy educators has also evolved. In the 1970s and ’80s we worried primarily about content—that our kids would swear like Archie Bunker or beat each other with mallets like the cartoon characters on “Bugs Bunny.” We responded by placing limits on the types of shows kids could watch, and we talked about a Christian perspective on those no-nos.
In the ’90s our alarm included company branding and the media’s sale of corporate culture to our kids. We fought the idea of everyone sitting at McDonald’s wearing Nike T-shirts and drinking Coke. The issues became much more complex. But this time around parents and teachers got the help of media literacy organizations, which sprung up to educate us on the impact of companies taking advantage of child labor to sell cool, cheap products so we could all look the same.
Today our kids have become the media. They exist with the media in a sort of exclusive virtual tree house where nobody but those they choose are allowed in. Many parents are at a loss because they not only don’t know what’s going on in the tree house, they have no clue how to climb the tree.
According to a Media Awareness Network study, 48 percent of 16- to 17-year-olds report that their parents know very little or nothing about what they do on the Internet, and only 36 percent of teenagers say their parents have talked “a lot” with them about online safety.
As a teacher of teenagers and as a parent of four daughters, three of whom are teenagers, I can relate to parents’ frustration. How do we respond to today’s media realities?
The good news is that no matter how wired our kids get, our responses in the days of the one-TV household still apply. Given that TV, music, and the Internet are increasingly amalgamating into one world, what follows are some of the concerns
I believe we need to address as we move forward, along with some guidelines about how we can respond.
1. Time. Kids now spend more time on the computer than on television, and because they can multitask so well, their “media” time has become blurred with “homework” time.
At a glance, it appears our kids are studying all the time, but the majority of homework time often gets spent on non-homework activities such as chatting, checking e-mail, updating personal websites, and downloading music. Left unregulated, kids will spend many of their waking hours online. Many are addicted to e-mail, particularly Instant Messaging, because of its ever-presence. Add in the use of MP3 players, cell phones, and regular television, and many kids are privately wired for up to eight hours a day.
Can we justify this time commitment to the media? Will the norm for the next generation be to give up on face-to-face community and faith involvement completely? Or will the media world become the community and place of worship?
2. Branding. There used to be a time when the media “bad guys”—commercial makers, corporations, for instance—were easy to spot. We were the little guys on this side of the wall; they were the giants on the other side who wanted us to buy their stuff. Our kids have scaled the wall. The media world is now their theme park.
Most kids are unaware that the majority of the games they play online are connected to a corporate entity. Do they even care? FOX television’s parent company, News Corp., purchased the social networking portal MySpace.com earlier this year to begin selling its television and music products to the estimated 61 million loyal subscribers the site has gathered. My 17-year-old daughter simply shrugged. “There’s nothing I can do about that,” she said. So she is now subject to constant ads for FOX TV shows coming out this fall.
In August, Google merged with MySpace to create an even more powerful online marketing machine. Advertisers are lining up to buy space from both FOX and Google, eager to capitalize on the lucrative 18- to 25-year-old audience.
It takes no genius to understand that when we give our kids endless hours to roam the media theme park owned by our culture’s most influential corporations, they’ll make unconscious decisions about what they value. And why wouldn’t they? All their friends are on MySpace. The media world is no longer out there. It’s their world.
3. Online Safety. The longer kids wander around the theme park, the more comfortable they become with everyone with whom they coexist. When TV and the Internet fully merge, the time spent online will only increase. The Media Awareness Network estimates that fully half the public websites set up by “teenagers” on MySpace are not posted by teens at all but by marketers or shady individuals looking to connect with kids.
Entire books have been written about the shadows and alleys of the Internet, but our kids need to understand that wherever they hang out online, there will be individuals seeking to exploit them.
Netsmartz.org asserts that one in five kids ages 10 to 17 have received some sort of sexual solicitation or approach on the Internet. Back when kids were on one side of the wall, the sexual solicitations came via music lyrics and movies. There existed a chasm that prevented direct contact. But as the media continue to merge, kids will become more and more accessible to real people. (Consult the websites listed with this article for more insight regarding the personal safety of your children and you.)
4. The Age-Old Content Issue. Media such as movies, song lyrics, and late-night television may indeed be getting more explicit, but what’s more alarming is the number of parents who allow their kids unlimited Internet and satellite feeds into their private bedrooms.
There was once a time when childhood had specific borders in the media. One television sat in the living room, and TV programmers saved their racy stuff till after bedtime. They avoided some topics altogether for fear of advertiser reprisal. Today there are no borders. Kids can view pornography by typing three letters, they can get the uncensored lyrics of angry musical artists, and they can view hate websites within seconds.
Surprisingly, many parents have thrown up their hands at the futility of responding to the media maze. Worse, they have given kids unlimited access to the most obscene content ever made available to the public.
So how can we help kids navigate this maze when we find it so confusing ourselves?
1. Talk about media issues frequently. Ask your kids specific questions about their Internet destinations, and explain the concern of being exposed to marketers and individuals they don’t know.
2. Limit “media time” and control allowable media times. In our house the Internet is off-limits a half-hour before supper, before school, and before church. We also use a “time logged on” and “time logged off” sign-in book.
3. Visit your child’s content list on the Instant Message website (MSN). See who is on his or her chat list. Listen to the often-uncensored music your child has downloaded. Visit kids’ personal websites to monitor the kind of information they’ve made public and to see who has posted messages in their guest book.
4. Create clear distinctions between homework and media time.
5. Make sure Internet access stays in high-traffic areas of your house. As any online police investigator will tell you, never allow Internet access or satellite television in kids’ bedrooms.
Many parents are afraid their child will resent the above intrusions on their personal online world, as though kids somehow have a right to all digital decision making in their lives. The question I always ask parents is this: Would you drop off your kid in the center of New York City or Toronto every day for four or five hours without any advice or “street proofing”? Would you allow her to chat with whomever she meets on those streets, go into any of the buildings she stumbles across, or freely hand out her picture, phone number, and address to people she thinks she can trust?
I’m guessing your answer is probably no. “Intrusion” implies you have no right to do what you are doing. But your goal is to raise kids who will grow up making good decisions about the time they spend with media and the content with which they fill themselves. If their Real World is truly becoming one with the Media World, they need to know that their Christian values should not be compromised no matter where they find themselves. What they do inside the tree house should be no different from what they do in your kitchen.
With proper guidance and discussion, your kids will apply the values and morals you instill in them wherever they are.
Insight for Parents and Kids
- The Media Awareness Network (www.media-awarness.ca)
- The Netsmartz Workshop (www.netsmartz.org)
- The Association for Media Literacy (www.aml.ca)
- Center for Media Literacy (www.medialit.org)
- The New Mexico Media Literacy Project (www.nmmlp.org)
Never . . .
- post pictures of you or your family online, especially if people you don’t know have access to your website.
- give out personal information to marketers asking for names, addresses, and phone numbers.
- post where you live or go to school.
- participate in chat rooms you know little about.
- Always . . .
- balance your media time with play, homework, and face-to-face chats with your friends.
- imagine your parents looking over your shoulder before you say or view something.
- avoid websites that your gut tells you are inappropriate.