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Watching the News with Your Kids

Why parental co-viewing helps your kids better understand the complex relationship between race and the news media.

I have 12-year-old twin sons. I am also a communication scholar and media effects expert, interested in news and stereotypes. As parents, we tend to focus on entertainment media, but news is another important part of children's media diets, especially as news permeates both traditional platforms like television and newer platforms like social media. This combination of realities has made my home life somewhat challenging over the last few election cycles, as I would often co-view the news with my kids.

For instance, during the Trump 2016 presidential campaign, we were watching the news air a speech in which Trump called Muslims "terrorists." The older of my two sons was curious and said, "Why does Trump say mean things about Muslims?" I paused the TV and began to ask him what he thought about the comments. I reiterated how important it is to not stereotype an entire group. I also told him that most people of the Muslim faith here are patriotic Americans who abhor terrorism. I took this opportunity to have him reflect on his own relationships with Muslim schoolmates. In other words, I used the heated, prejudiced rhetoric we saw on the news to reiterate our family values of tolerance and understanding.

You see, given my knowledge of media and its impact, I have always had two overarching goals when it comes to my children's relationship with the media. The first goal is to prioritize reading and interactive play over exposure to media content, especially problematic content. We know from research that healthy brain maturity and social skills develop through human interaction. This means that interacting with your children and having them engage in meaningful play leads to more healthy outcomes than having them engage with screens for multiple hours a day, especially at young ages.

The second goal is to be involved with my kids when they do engage with screen media, which could include watching something first to determine whether it is appropriate for them. (I often use Common Sense Media's ratings and reviews to make those decisions.) However, even more powerful is co-viewing -- when you watch the content with your children and discuss the issues that come up, as I was able to do with my sons in the story I just shared. Co-viewing is especially important considering what we know about race and the news.

Remember that the goal of any news outlet is to make a profit, and that newsrooms are dominated mostly by White reporters. These goals create a dynamic where newsrooms replicate stereotypical portrayals of people of color. For instance, in a series of content analyses I conducted, I found that news content of African Americans has been associated with criminality, and Muslims have been overrepresented as terrorists, while White people have been overrepresented as police officers. We know from other research, including Common Sense's latest report, that these portrayals can influence the stereotypical notions of adults. Given that children develop both their notions of ethnic identity and stereotypes of others from various socializing agents, including family and media, the same effects most likely occur even more powerfully with children.

However, parents can interrupt this stereotyping process through co-viewing. While watching the news (or other media content) with kids, parents and caregivers -- or any adult-- can ask about the underlying assumptions the program is making. They can also reinforce their values of equality and equity while talking about how people may misconstrue the world if they do not think more critically about what they watch. I have done this with my own kids during the last two elections, asking them about what is morally correct or wrong about politicians and other people featured in news stories. We have discussed whether a portrayal is truly reflective of a particular group -- and whether what they are seeing should influence how they view others. This form of co-viewing can be a powerful way to socialize kids to resist bias.

For more on how to do co-viewing, check out Common Sense Media's News Literacy page.

Travis Dixon
Travis L. Dixon is professor of communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a member of the Common Sense Research Advisory Group.