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Why Media Role Models Matter
Media is a gigantic super-peer
As parents, we have a natural instinct to choose who we want our kids to be friends with -- and who we'd rather they not hang around. The same instinct kicks in for media role models. We like iCarly because she's smart and kind. SpongeBob? Maybe not so much.
In today's 24/7 media environment, in which kids may be spending more time with media than they are with their parents, choosing positive role models is more important than ever. At Common Sense, we often refer to media as "the other parent" -- that's how much influence it has in your kids' lives. Role models matter. Help your kids find good ones.
What it is
You don't have to look much farther than the Ariel costume in your daughter's closet or the lightsaber in your son's toy box to know that kids emulate their favorite characters.
By the time our kids are in middle school, they start to look to their peers for a sense of what's socially acceptable or desirable. Parents may remain the primary influence in their kids' lives, but the competition starts to get fierce at this age. This separation is entirely age appropriate. But when the media comes into play, the values you want to pass down to your kids may be competing against, say, Homer Simpson's.
Why it matters
Our kids' media environment goes way beyond television. Influencers reach out to kids via YouTube, video games, Twitter, and music -- all of which are broadcast or easily accessible 24 hours a day. And as we all know, not all the characters or people who gain popularity through these channels have stellar role model credentials.
Smoking is a perfect example of how media stars make things look cool. Studies show that exposure to pro-tobacco marketing and smoking in the media more than doubles the odds that kids will start smoking. And half of kids who start smoking say they do so because they saw someone they looked up to smoking in the movies.
The good news is that there are plenty of positive role models you can point to that may influence your kids to make healthy choices, learn to respect others, achieve goals, and avoid anti-social behavior. Negative role models -- especially ones who don't suffer consequences for their actions -- can encourage anti-social behavior, stereotypes, and even cruelty. Help your kids choose positive media role models who embody the values you want to pass down.
Tips for parents of young kids
Limit screen time. Kids grow and thrive best through personal interaction. Spending time with them, playing, and reading are great ways to build a foundation to impart your values.
Find age-appropriate content. Kids ages 2-7 should be exposed to media featuring good role moles, racial and gender diversity, and no stereotypes.
Encourage positive socialization. Look for role models who impart positive social lessons, like sharing and being a good friend.
Respect differences. Encourage kids this age to accept and respect people who are different by exposing them to media that includes people of diverse backgrounds.
Tips for parents of elementary-aged kids
Avoid stereotypes. Point out strong female characters or male characters who share their feelings. Try not to reinforce stereotypes in media selection (i.e. princess movies for girls and truck videos for boys), since that can reinforce societal imbalances.
Reinforce your values. Point out words and behavior in popular TV shows, websites, and music that are both positive and negative examples of what you do and don't want your kids to model. What you say to your child is up to you, but have the discussion.
Flag antisocial behavior. Children like to imitate and pretend to be their favorite characters. When characters say mean things or behave cruelly, discuss the consequences.
Go with the good stuff. Kids will be inspired by great historical figures, athletes, or TV stars. Take advantage of that adoration by pointing out their good traits, as in, "George Washington was honest. Honesty is an important quality." Not: "Lying is bad. Children who lie get in trouble."
Tips for parents of older kids
Embrace what they like. Rejecting your kids' love of popular culture can close off avenues of communication. Embrace their world, but establish clear boundaries about what you find acceptable and appropriate.
Help teens balance their need for rebellion and self-expression with an appreciation of acceptable social action. Kids need to understand how to communicate and use media wisely and ethically. If they engage with media that includes antisocial behavior, make sure they understand the impact and potential consequences.
Let older kids see things you don't agree with. But then discuss exactly what you don't like with them. Since we won't always be around, we need to make sure to instill critical-thinking skills in our kids.
Don't shy away from pointing the finger. If your kids (or their schoolmates) are heavy media users and they demonstrate or are on the receiving end of any antisocial behavior or experience eating disorders, addictions, low school performance or depression, connect the dots -- and disconnect the source.