Talking to Your Kids in Tough Times: How to Answer Your Child's Questions About the World We Live In
By Willow Bay
In April 2003, during the war with Iraq, a seven-year-old boy asked his mother, "How do they get the salt to stick on those guns?" "What guns?" she asked, clearly confused by the question. "The salt rifles," he replied. At that point, the mother realized her son had heard a news report about the AK-47 assault rifles used in the war. But it's not only violence that captures our children's attention. During the Monica Lewinsky presidential scandal of 1998, a first-grade boy informed his parents at breakfast one morning: "Mom, Dad, we need to talk about what's going on at the White House at dinner tonight. I just don't get it." After his parents spent a day figuring out how to explain oral sex and presidential liaisons to their seven-year-old, that night, at dinner, the boy finally asked: "Look I know there are interns at hospitals, but why are there interns at the White House?"
These are just two stories out of hundreds of thousands in which children pick up bits of information about current events from the things they see and hear on television, radio, and the Internet. Our children are the first generation in the history of the world who are able to get huge amounts of information that's not filtered by their parents or teachers. And we are the first generation of parents to raise children exposed to this much-uncensored data. Perhaps most unsettling is that so much of what our children see and hear comes from the television sets in their very own homes.
Television - It's Just Not What It Used To Be
The images of television are more intensely affecting than the printed or spoken word and offer less context. Everyone-adult or child-pays more attention to things that move. We humans are wired that way. If you are reading a book, totally engrossed, and a mouse runs across your living room floor, you'll notice that tiny moving image.
Regardless of content, there is a built-in magnetism to television. But in the case of television, children inhabit an entirely different universe from the one their parents did. Robert Evans explains, "A kid with a television in his room can watch as much news on Iraq as he wants, and his parents aren't paying attention. And a kid at his computer can mess around with as much pornography as he wants." Those are just not the kind of opportunities for trouble we had as children. Most of us grew up in homes that had one television set. We got up and walked over to the set to change the channel. We watched as a family. A parent usually controlled what we watched and when. Not anymore.
Children have far greater access to television today. Forty-eight percent-nearly half-of U.S. television households have three or more sets. That means a lot of children are watching alone in their rooms. And they often watch without a parent to provide context and explanation. There was no CNN when we were children-now there are half a dozen live news channels available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Add to that the proliferation of media of all sorts-magazines, newspapers, radio, and the Internet-and it's clear that our children are growing up with unprecedented access to news and information.
All of us who live with this steady barrage of readily available information today know how powerful the media are. Acknowledging this power has almost become a cliché. And we can blame any number of social ills on it. But managing it, and truly understanding its influence, requires a bit more effort. "The media are more powerful than we even realize," says David Walsh, founder of the National Institute of Media and the Family, a nonprofit organization based in Minneapolis. "Not good or bad, but powerful. Good or bad depends on how it's used. And because the media are powerful and because they occupy a larger and larger role in kids' lives, it becomes more important that we make sure that we use them for benefit and not harm," he adds.
So what are the media habits of the average American family?
Walsh and his organization developed the MediaQuotient survey tool to measure family media habits. The parents in these homes recorded their own media usage and reported their own observations of the effects on their children. According to MediaQuotient, a survey of families with children ages two to seventeen, the average American child:
Watches twenty-five hours of television each week.
Plays computer or video games for seven hours each week.
Accesses the Internet from home for four hours each week (for those who have Internet access).