In the trailer for Judd Apatow's This is 40, we see the family sitting around a picnic table when the mother turns to her daughter and says, "We've decided to cut back on all the electronics we use." The daughter protests.
Dad: You need to get outside more.
Mom: Build a fort.
Daughter: Do what in the fort?
Mom: You need to develop your imagination.
Like many of us, they're grasping to control one of the most unwieldy aspects of contemporary parenting: American media.
It's both a tool and a tyrant. When my three-year-old sings along to The Sound of Music, I take pleasure knowing she's enjoying a classic film, but when she throws a fit when it's time to turn off a Kipper the Dog cartoon, I'm overwhelmed by her near-addictive behavior.
I worked in the film and TV production industry for a decade, I even studied and taught media literacy, but now as a parent I struggle to manage the media in my home. What's appropriate for my kid to watch? Starting at what age? For how long?
Especially in Christian circles, I hear plenty of pontificating on the evils of American entertainment, but as a parent, what I need most is realistic advice for the world I live in. Most of us are not going to burn our TVs. Most of us need a positive and practical model for how to raise "media wise" kids. That model should address not just the content of what we show our kids, but also the form it comes in and how it's made. That's why media literacy matters.
(I'm focusing here on TV and videos for children between about 3 and 10. The American Academy of Pediatrics doesn't recommend TV viewing for kids under 3 and the 11 to 17-age kids require a different conversation.)
9 Tips for Media-Literate Families
When selecting programming….
1. Disregard labels: Phrases like "educational video" or "kid video" shouldn't be a green light, necessarily. Pediatricians will tell you that children learn best through tactile experience and interpersonal contact. No matter how many PBS logos you see, videos are a passive medium, not an active one, and an entertainment medium, not an educational one. Videos are a supplement to learning, not a substitute.
More importantly, labels pertain to content (violence or other inappropriate content), not form. Keep in mind that form can be violent for a little developing brain, if the video is excessively fast or frenetic.
2. Watch the cut rate: Pay attention to how fast the video moves. The faster the cut rate—more edits or image changes per minute—the more frenetic the video, and the more frenetic the video, the more difficulty your child will have tracking the story. Generally speaking, the younger the child, the slower the cut rate.
For example, at the risk of criticizing a well-loved icon of Christian entertainment, Veggie Tales videos are often too frenetic for kids under 5. The BBC's Kipper the Dog is a good example of a slow-tempo alternative, or the vintage Mr. Rogers, which is edited with a painfully slow pace.
3. Listen to the audio: Audio contributes as much—if not more—to the pace of the video as what's on the screen. Editors often cut to music, so the audio track is a great way to assess the frenetic factor. Listen to the video without looking at it. If the video has a lot of up-tempo music that runs throughout the video, your child has a lot more sensory data to intake and process. Look for what editors call "breathing space," where the audio periodically quiets down.
4. Consider the internal impact: Even if your child seems to be tracking a fast-paced video, be cognizant of how it impacts her emotional state. A frenetic video with lots of visual edits and up-tempo music can rev her system the same way rock music revs your system. Conversely, a slower video will help calm her system. Keep in mind, too, that TV viewing impacts cognitive development. Some studies indicate that, even in homes that value education, excess TV exposure impairs learning in school.
When your child watches programming…
5. Skip television (unless it's ad-slim PBS). With DVDs, you avoid advertisements, which are often frenetic, and you control both the viewing and the dialogue that goes along with viewing. (See #7.)
6. Skip introductions, at least for the little ones. Like movie trailers, introductions with opening credits are often cut montage-style, with lots of fast cuts and fast music.
7. Watch with her, especially in early viewings. First, assess the form. Is the video too fast? Is the audio too frenetic? Is my child tracking? Second, assess the content. Talk with her about the emotions she feels and the values and morals she's viewing. Help narrate what's going on and how it relates to her life.
For example, my three-year-old loves to watch The Sound of Music. When she watches the scene in which Maria and the Captain bicker over how to raise the kids, she says to me, "They're not being gentle," and then we talk about the importance of being gentle with each other.
8. Repeat the video. Repetition is part of learning, both with reading books and "reading" media. The more a child views a video, the more she understands the story and anticipates a character's actions. If after multiple viewings, she's still not tracking, that's an indication the video might be too frenetic or age inappropriate.
9. Equip your child: You can't control every situation, so help your child self-regulate when she's at a friend's house. Use language she can understand. "If the video makes you feel yucky, call mom and I'll pick you up." Or, "If the video feels too fast, tell the babysitter." Equip her with decision-making power. Even if the process takes years, it will pay dividends in the long run.
In Christian culture, we talk a lot about the negative impact of electronic media and not a lot about the positive impact. But when we raise media-wise kids, we're giving them lifelong tools. This sense of media savvy, along with an appreciation of visual storytelling and a cultivated imagination, will help build sound judgment for them in school and beyond.
Most of our kids over the course of their lives will consume plenty of visual media, much of it when we're not around. So while they're still at home—sitting at the picnic table rolling their eyes at us—all we can do is keep the conversation going and hope that they'll grow up to engage media with maturity and discernment.
Andrea Palpant Dilley's recent memoir, Faith and Other Flat Tires: Searching for God on the Rough Road of Doubt (Zondervan), tells the story of her departure from church and her eventual return. She lives with her husband and daughter in Austin, Texas. For more information, visit www.andreapalpantdilley.com.