Earlier this week, Partnership for a Drug-Free America announced research findings that more than one-third of parents are worried that media exposure is making it difficult for them to talk to their kids about things like doing drugs and drinking. This is influenced by both the amount of time a young person spends with media, and the content of the media itself, which means parents are faced with a (at least) two-pronged media front in their efforts to have critical and candid talks with their children about difficult topics. The “birds and the bees” talk can be hard enough already without media getting in the way.
The good news is that there are steps you can take so that your kids are being raised by you instead of the media. Here are a few of the basics:
1. Use the media as a springboard to talk. Young people spend almost eight hours a day with media, and when media multitasking is factored in, they’re taking in just under eleven hours worth of media content every day. This is a lot, but it still does not mean that television, Internet, music and video games are the enemy. If your teen is watching a movie that shows characters using drugs, use that to start a conversation about why someone might try drugs and any real-world consequences that were not depicted in the show. For example, let’s suppose your teen is watching Mad Men, which is well-known for the high amount of smoking, drinking and sex that takes place in every episode. Try talking about why this is the case, maybe explaining that this was part of the culture, and people didn’t know the things back then that they do now. The link between cigarettes and cancer was not as widely accepted in the 1960s as it is now, AIDS and HIV were not part of the picture, and even though drinking and driving is not a major concern in the show, drunk driving carries some very severe consequences in the real world. Sure, Don may look cool as he’s leaned back smoking in his chair with a whiskey, but how do you think he looked and felt by the time Sally gets to college? And, notice how no one on the show talks about using condoms or birth control? Potential spoiler alert, but some of the characters do pay a price for this, like when Peggy gets pregnant, and more recently, Joan has had two abortions which she’s worried could hinder her chances of starting a family with her husband. You don’t have to launch into a full analysis of the show, but you can use as a safe and comfortable place to start the discussion.
2. Make time to talk. Communication is hard when you or your teen is glued to one or more screens every minute of the day, so do what you can to make sure at least a little time is carved out to talk about what your kid does online, what does s/he think about the video game that just arrived, what’s big on YouTube, etc. Maybe this means no gadgets at the dinner table or phone calls after a certain hour. And, be aware that media probably starts “talking” to your kids about drugs, sex, violence etc. before you do, so try to start having these open, candid discussions sooner than later. Considering the busy schedules of both parents and kids, making time can be one of the hardest things to do, but it is still one of the most important.
3. Make media a family affair. We say this a lot at The LAMP. In many cases, media creates a divide between parents and their children, but it can also be used as a glue. Talk to your kids about what they’re doing online, know what they’re watching and do things together. This could be as simple as playing a video game or watching a movie, or it could mean that you’re editing home videos together. Or if you’re really a novice, ask your kid to show you how to do something, like putting pictures on your iPod or signing up on Facebook. Yet again, try to do this from an early age if you can, so that it becomes a normal activity. Another big part of making media a shared entity is keeping it in the common areas of your home. Computers and televisions do not belong in bedrooms (which may mean you have to remove the TV from your bedroom if you want this rule enforced). Perhaps a laptop in your teen’s room makes sense if she needs some privacy to do homework, but don’t let the laptop live there. Knowing what your kids are doing and demonstrating that you understand it is critical if you want to know what media tell them about risky behaviors.