The challenge of parenting in a media-rich age

Remember the footage of the tsunami that hit northern Japan last year? All that toxic rubbish flooding into people’s homes, even sweeping houses away. Without wanting to sound too dramatic, that’s what I am reminded of when I look at the media world that young people exist in.

Television is ubiquitous, not just in lounge rooms, but also in many children’s bedrooms as online media now adds to this. And it just gets trashier: reality shows about losing weight, survivor programs with unappealing characters treating each other badly, violence and uncaring sex spicing up soaps and dramas. Magazines read by 10-year-olds are full of ads for makeup, hair products, and an obsession with clothes and junk food that somehow makes you cool.

The problem with the media (for all its positives) is that the people making these programs, designing these websites, and paying for magazine advertising don’t have our children’s interests at heart. Far from it.

In the late 1990s, corporations deliberately set about creating a “tween” market—especially aimed at girls who are more attuned to social belonging—to exploit or create anxieties about their looks, fitting in, and being popular. As a result, according to a report from the American Psychological Association Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, we have lost four years of childhood. For many girls, 14 is the new 18. The worries and pressures we parents had in our late teens, girls now have in their early teens. And both developmentally and neurologically they are far from ready.

Meanwhile, for boys, along with a growing pressure to also look “hot”—muscular and fashionably dressed—comes the added influence of online pornography. Clinics are reporting boys as young as 12 and 13 addicted to porn, unbeknown to their parents. When teenage boys have seen hundreds of sex acts onscreen before they have even kissed a real girl, it’s likely their sexuality is being misshapen. And sure enough, girls are telling counsellors of boys treating them horribly, thinking that is how sex is done. “Come on bitch, you know you want it” is not the kind of tender talk 16-year-old girls want to hear from their boyfriends.

It’s clear that our responsibility is to talk to our kids. We can’t stop them being shown things by friends, and it wouldn’t be healthy to try and block out the media world from them altogether. But we can be age appropriate.

6631862399_f98072046a_nHaving TV on all day around young children floods them with bizarre messages. Our daughter, at three, turned to us one afternoon and said, “That’s good, Mummy. That lady’s husband will love her now she’s lost weight”. As we reeled at hearing this, we realised she had just seen a weightloss programme advertisement, and certainly grasped its message. Our TV habits changed from that day; we just hadn’t realized how young children are already taking things in.

Many people are having far less TV on around their under fives, only selected programs for primary age children, and having more discussions and co-watching with their teens, empowering them to deconstruct the ads and the programs.

And a lot of parents are taking TVs out of bedrooms, and turning off the wifi after homework time, knowing it’s hard for kids to set boundaries for themselves.

Having kids makes you look at yourself too. It helps if we ourselves are not carrying on about weight, looks, being beautiful, and fashion all the time. If we have caught that disease, there is little chance our kids won’t get it too.

TV, the internet, and magazines are the wallpaper our kids grow up with now. We don’t have to give in to these things. We choose who comes into our homes, and we, and they, can choose who comes through their screens as well.

When 13% of all girls will have an eating disorder in their lifetime, and self-harm and anxiety have never been higher in girls and boys, we need to make home a happier and more engaged place.

By turning off, tuning in, and teaming up, we can be a haven from the harsh, competitive world that corporations want us to belong to. Our values as Christians are, as always, very different from those of the world we live in. And so much more life-affirming.

Steve Biddulph’s Raising Girls book is now available in Australia, from Finch Publishing, $24.95.

Bottom image: From Flickr using a CC license: