It's a new year, and once again I find myself making resolutions. There's my annual resolve to get more exercise and eat healthier food. But this year, I decided to do something that actually might result in lasting change. I decided to put my family on a media diet -- not a physical one. I'm not talking about a starvation regime -- I don't think that's realistic or smart. What I had in mind was more of a change in how my family behaves around media and technology. Since I'm dedicated to media sanity, not media censorship, that means really thinking about what my kids need to know in order to use technology responsibly and what my husband and I need to do to support smart behavior and good media consumption choices now that our teens are on the verge of total media freedom.
I came up with five things I actually think have a decent shot at succeeding. And if we do them, we will absolutely see positive changes in our lives.
1. I will know before they go. To me that means that I'll take a moment to do my homework and find out what's in something before I go to the movies, buy a video game, let my teen download songs or join a social network, or allow him to play that online game that everyone else in his school is playing. I won't let fear of technology stop me from understanding the basics of their Facebook or texting lives. I may even ask them to teach me about what I need to know! My kids might know more about how to post photo albums, but I still know more about parenting.
2. I will talk with my kids about the media they consume. I believe that I can't cover my kids' eyes (though my kids are older -- they were younger, I would absolutely shield them from age-inappropriate content), but it's my job as a parent to help them to see. I want them to be savvy and to be aware of the commercial and social messages they're seeing and hearing. I want them to be able to make up their own minds about what they see, hear, play, and read.
3. I will say "no." I hate being the heavy -- who doesn't? But I'd rather take the heat for embarrassing my son in front of his friends on New Year's Day when I caught them playing Grand Theft Auto and have an angry kid than see him intimately engaged in beating the stuffing out of people just for the fun of it. I will also stick to my guns and say "no" to having cell phones at the dinner table or having them on at bedtime.
4. I will watch my own habits. Am I checking my iPhone at dinner? Texting while driving? Am I tapping away at something when I'm talking with my kids? Ultimately, we are our children's most important teachers. What we do has more impact than what we say. So after a long day, when I plop down in front of the TV and watch back-to-back reruns of Law & Order, I have to remember that I'm modeling behavior for my kids.
5. Finally, I will be very clear about what is and isn't safe, responsible, or acceptable according to my values (and every family will have different standards). Like many parents, I would love to believe that my kids are aware and smart and don't need to be reminded of simple safety concerns (but then again, I still have to ask whether they've brushed their teeth...). I will remind them about how important it is to protect their privacy online, about the fact that cyberbullying is completely unacceptable, and I will help them if someone invades their privacy by tagging a photograph of them or by distributing a cell phone picture. I will remind my kids that not everything they see advertised will make their lives better, that too much screen time will lower their grades and raise their weight. I will explain that -- like it or not -- studies prove that aggressive games raise aggression levels and lower empathy and social skills. I will -- humorlessly, probably -- point out the racist, commercial, sexist, and misogynistic messages in some music and music videos. I will remind them that media is a privilege, not a right -- one to be enjoyed with responsibility and discernment.