Q: My parents didn't have a TV in the house when I was growing up and I didn't get a stereo until I was a teenager. We read and played outside and I didn't think I was deprived as a kid. I’m ashamed to say that I watched "General Hospital" every day my freshman year of college, even scheduling classes around it, but I don’t watch much TV now. It seems like what is out there now, in terms of violence, sex, and taking risks, is far worse than when I was a kid. Is there anything wrong with just cutting out electronic media completely from my kids' lives?
–Staying Sane in Seattle in Seattle, WA
Dear Staying Sane,
It sounds like your parents were concerned about what you might learn and how you might be changed by the media you used – and responded to their concern by avoiding media altogether. Since they had little information about media effects, they went with their gut feeling. But we know a lot more now than they did then, both about the nature of media effects and the long-term effects of cutting out media completely.
When you were growing up, media were “forbidden fruit,” a sure-fire formula for making media attractive when you got to college. You shouldn’t feel badly about this, it happens quite often. When you think of it, it's not that much different from the college freshmen who get into trouble with binge drinking when they first have access to alcohol. Not only were you attracted to the “forbidden,” but you had no experience using media, so you never got the opportunity to develop skills in critical viewing.
Critical viewing is critical thinking in a media environment – you learn to determine what is good in media, what expands your experience, builds your knowledge, makes you think and feel anew – and what does not. A critical viewer learns to seek out and use positive media in focused, directed ways, and then to turn it off and do other things. Without the childhood experience necessary to develop this skill, in college you got sucked into letting media control you, rather than you controlling media.
Here’s the other problem with cutting out electronic media completely – today, media are how we communicate who we are and share what we can be. Media are our common, shared experience that connects us as a culture. We compare opinions on American Idol contestants around the water cooler at work and instantly chuckle at the thought of Homer Simpson when others slap their foreheads and say “Doh!”
Young people are early adopters of media technologies and can unlock their innovative potential for creative expression, participatory democracy, and human understanding. Here's just one example of what can be done with the same devices that both worry and annoy many parents today — iPods, video cameras, and laptops:
This multimedia project, Playing for Change, is a "movement created to inspire, connect, and bring peace to the world through music. The idea for this project arose from a common belief that music has the power to break down boundaries and overcome distances between people."
So I recommend teaching your kids how, how much and when to use electronic media, as well as how to think critically about what they see and hear, and how to embrace the technology that is always so attractive to youth. Who knows, maybe your kids will grow up to use media in a way that is just as inspiring as this video!
Related question: If my kids grow up without TV, will they feel left out?
Enjoy your media and use them wisely,