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The Disconnected Family, or: Living With Mass Media

I had an interesting conversation last week regarding how much mass media our children are exposed to, and how many parents feel that the mass media should be censored to protect kids from inappropriate content. This touches on a couple of topics that I feel fairly strongly about, so here goes:

The first concept is the idea that it is the governments (or someone else’s) job to ensure that our kids are not exposed to “Bad Stuff” in the media (I’m including Movies, TV, Radio, the ‘net, music, and, for those rare folks that still read them, newspapers, books, and magazines). A number of the people involved in the discussion felt that the rating systems used by the movies, and to som extent by music and video games should be expanded to include pretty much any type of media. They felt that it was unreasonable to expect a parent to preview or evaluate something before letting their kids have it, so by having someone else do the review, the parents could simply see what the item was rated, and decide if their kids could be exposed to it or not.

I have a number of problems with this particular approach. First of all, part of being a parent in knowing what your kids are doing – and that includes knowing what TV shows, movies, music, and video games they are exposed to. Sure, it can be time consuming, it may mean that you have to review things that you’re not really interested in, but who ever said being a parent was easy? Second, if the parents aren’t willing to decide what is or is not appropriate for their kids, who will? Sure, there are plenty of organizations out there that are more than willing to try and force their ethics on others – the moral majority (more accurately: Immoral minority) is a great example. They have lobbied to ban books from school libraries, have been leading lobbyists for a host of “decency” laws (things like outlawing extramarital sex, sex education, teaching evolution, etc.). I don’t know about you, but I consider myself a much better judge of what I want my kids exposed to than anyone else. Especially anyone who is so sure they know what is best for everybody that they are willing to make a career out of it.

The second issue I have is the whole concept of just how much mass media our kids are exposed to. On estimate I read was that kids spend something like 70% of their waking time consuming mass media in one form or another. 70%! This is where the disconnect part come in. If kids are really spending that much time soaking up the various forms of mass media, when are they connecting with their family? Think about it. The kids  are plugged in to an ipod or a hand held video game (or both or all three), in the car they have movies, and if the TV is off at home, they’re surfing the web. How many families actually sit down and have dinner together? OK, those that do, how many of the kids show up to the dinner table with an ipod or some other gadget to entertain them? Mass media has become a more pervasive teacher of our kids than family. Kids learn about acceptable language, sexual behavior, drug use, and clothing styles from the mass media. How many parents actually believe that they are the primary source of their kids ethics? Most probably believe it, but how can you tell. Here’s a simple test. find some aspect of your kids life that reflects an aspect of mass media that you don’t like. Music style, clothing, language, whatever. Now, exercise your parental authority to change it to something that is acceptable to you. For most families, this is simply impossible – the parents simply have not established that they are the source that defines what is acceptable and what is not.
There are a few families I know that are exceptions to this. In almost all cases, they are the families where the TV is limited, as are the ‘net and other forms of mass media. By limited, I mean that the parents actually know what they kids are being exposed to, and regulate it – regardless of what “everyone else is doing”. Of course, these parents started this when their kids were still infants. These are also the kids that tend to be “different” at school. They are not afraid of outperforming the other kids, they have ethics and standards that are somewhat different – because they reflect their parents ethics and standards, not those pushed by the mass media. Oh yeah, and they are secure in who they are. They know that they are different, and they know why they are different.

So, think about it. What do you want your kids to be? If you want to raise Charlie’s angels or Sex in the City characters, you don’t have to do anything – mass media will raise your kids for you. If you want something else, turn off the TV, unplug the ipod, kill the ‘net, and spend some time (a lot of time) with your kids showing them what is important. Remember: YOU, the parent are responsible for selecting the role models your kids are exposed to.

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