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Dirty Little Secrets: How Some Parents Bend Their Media Rules
Screen time limits. Movie ratings. Violent video games. With so many media issues to stay on top of, it's no wonder that most parents don't follow all the "rules" when it comes to kids and media use. And while some parents might brag about their media management ("We don't even own a television!"), most of us will divulge a few dirty little secrets when we're with our closest pals.
We spoke to friends and colleagues to collect their deepest, darkest media confessions, but here's the thing: None of the parents we spoke with break media rules carelessly. They've all done their research on what's great and not so great for their kids and have made thoughtful decisions about how to manage media in their households. Their decisions don't always follow the mainstream, but that doesn't mean they're bad parents. In fact, the thoughtfulness with which these parents have approached the "rules" means that they're practicing the very best kind of parenting -- a very common sense approach.
Screens Under 2
Several parents we spoke with admit to letting toddlers under the age of 2 watch television or play with apps, despite the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation to avoid screen time for tots. Some parents use videos or smartphone apps as a distraction during certain key activities, like nail clipping or finishing up dinner.
And when it comes to airplane travel, the parent of a 21-month-old girl says: "I will use any and all tricks available to keep her happy and quiet -- from videos on my phone to interactive iPad apps; no guilt whatsoever, as it makes both her and fellow passengers (and me!) happier to have her absorbed in something."
CSM Says: As parents know well, screens can be very appealing to young kids, but toddlers' need for human interaction far outmatches any benefit they receive from television or apps. A screen can work wonders as a momentary soother, but parents who have a range of soothing techniques at their disposal will set their kids up for healthy media habits in the future.
TV During Dinner
Studies have shown that sitting down to dinner as a family can have a major positive impact on kids' development. But even knowing that, one mom of a 12-year-old boy says she and her family occasionally eat dinner in front of the television.
She's got a few rules, though: "We never watch live TV. We always watch taped shows so we can mute or fast forward through commercials. We also use the ability to pause the show in order to discuss what's going on or to talk about our own personal view of something controversial, attention grabbing, confusing, or requiring more explanation."
CSM Says: Not only does watching television while eating tend to shut down conversation, but it can encourage unhealthy eating habits. But parents who take a mindful approach to occasionally mixing media and meals can combat the negatives. Co-viewing television with kids is a great way to keep in touch with what's going on in their world. And keeping the interaction going throughout the meal is key. Parents will want to keep an eye out for any mindless gobbling, and make adjustments as necessary.
Violent Video Games
Console games like Halo and Grand Theft Auto get a lot of attention for their violent content. Concerns about increased aggression and antisocial behavior top the list of reasons that experts urge parents to avoid many of these games, especially for younger players. But one dad we talked with says he's less concerned about the violence as long as the game includes problem-solving skills and creative thinking.
"Because their brains are focused on beating the challenges imposed by the game's dynamics, I think kids won't confuse pressing X-A-L2-Up with punching someone in real life," he says. This dad has done plenty of reading on the effects of video games on kids' brains and feels satisfied that his practices are in line with his beliefs. That said, he does have some limits. "I'm OK with my 13-year-old son playing a first-person shooter as long as the graphics aren't gory and the storyline doesn't involve rampant antisocial behavior."
CSM Says: Kids need help understanding violence, whether it's in real life or on a video screen. Parents who play along with kids, as this father does, can help kids process the difference between real and fantasy violence. Talking about the consequences of real violence can help kids stay sensitized to the real world. And finally, the decision to steer clear of gore, violence mixed with sexuality, and other antisocial behavior is a good one for kids.
When photos of pop star Rihanna with cuts and bruises on her face surfaced in the media, the story of the attack by her then-boyfriend, fellow singer Chris Brown, became instant news. With kids ages 10 and 12 who were fans of both celebs, one mother had to do a lot of damage control.
"We talked a lot about the respectful treatment of women and what's OK and what's not," she says. But with the release of Brown's song "Beautiful People," this mom decided to let the singer back into her family's life. "It's a song about respecting others and looking for beauty within," she says, which seem like good messages for her kids to hear. But the topic of Brown's assault comes up occasionally when her kids listen to the song and watch the video. And this mom doesn't shy away from the discussion. "We use it as a way to talk about the issue," she says.
CSM Says: Middle school is a time when peers and the media (including celebrities) start to exert even more influence over kids than before. So using high-profile media moments as conversation starters and as a way to impart your own family's values is a great approach.
Finally, we know that not all families see media use the same way, and that sometimes your family's practices might not fit with your neighbors'. But as long as you're being thoughtful -- even if it's as simple as choosing which battles to take on and which to let slide -- the secret is, you're being an effective parent. Congratulations!