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Children's Voice Article, July/August 2003

Executive Directions

by Shay Bilchik

As children everywhere count down the days until summer vacation, parents everywhere are considering dozens of ways to make sure their children spend that time productively--from summer camps to trips, athletic or creative pursuits, and even part-time jobs.

But there's a good chance many youth, if not most, will while away their summer days watching TV or staring blankly at a computer screen--at best numbing their minds, at worst filling their heads with images and concepts most of us didn't have access to when we were young.

As authors Keisha and Mark Hoerrner point out in "Taming the TV Beast" in this issue of Children's Voice, "Children from less-than-perfect home environments can face a multiplied effect when it comes to differentiating between the fantasy and reality of television." There's no doubt the impact of television can be negative for those who are left alone to watch TV for hours, and who may not have the adult presence in their lives even when the TV is off.

It's true that, as media researcher Bradley Greenberg says in the same article, "Not all television is bad. Children often have learning styles that allow them to get more out of one hour of educational quality television than four hours of classroom lecture." Those of us who watched Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood can attest to that.

But our children seem to be drawn to more edgy fare today. Violent video games, films, and television programming are everywhere, and anyone with a remote control in hand would have a hard time avoiding that content. And as television violence researcher Joanne Cantor says in the article, "Children from less-than-perfect home environments can face a multiplied effect when it comes to differentiating between the fantasy and reality of television."

The flip side of that statement is true as well: Those who come from a healthy environment may not be as likely to suffer the ill effects of television.

A few years ago, I attended an awards ceremony for children in Louisiana who had participated in volunteer and leadership programs in their communities. When the topic of television violence came up, a parent told me her son watched TV and played some violent video games from time to time, but he wasn't violent--indeed, he was one of the students being honored that day for exemplary behavior. Why? Because his mother showed him what was acceptable and what wasn't, and his school and clubs sent the same messages to him, helping him decide how to filter out the bad from the good.

Clearly, the ability for youth to judge content on their own is vitally important, and conveying its importance may be better than simply blocking the content entirely. That's what media literacy is all about and why it's so important.

Like many other children of my generation, I spent plenty of time playing with toy soldiers in my bedroom and backyard, but I never thought it was acceptable to transfer the product of my imagination into anything more than just that, because the appeal of violence was counterbalanced by the message my parents sent me on a regular basis.

When my wife and I were raising our young children, we had no strict rules about the amount of time or the content of the programming our children could watch, but we avoided more graphic programming, and we kept a close eye on everything they "consumed" to make sure it wasn't presented in a vacuum.

This generally worked to balance their media intake and allowed us to send strong antiviolence messages. And although we decided not to buy our children toy guns, we learned quickly that a child's creative mind could turn the most innocent of objects into a play gun, whether it be a stick, an index finger, or Legos. Sound familiar?

Now the roles of teacher and student have been reversed. While driving recently from Florida to Maryland, my son and I ended up discussing the music of Eminem. Although my son enjoyed much of his work, I held the artist in contempt for his lyrics, which demean nearly every group one could name. But my son insisted we listen to one of his CDs together. He proceeded to point out the good and the bad, showing me he could appreciate the performer's complicated use of syncopation, internal rhyming, and clever composition to create something unique, even as he discounted and discarded much of the message.

I'm not sure I'll be abandoning my Joni Mitchell and Norah Jones CDs for Eminem's latest offering, but I'm glad to know if my children are exposed to media I consider distasteful--a concession all parents must make sooner or later--at least they're seeing it for what it's worth. And I helped them learn to make that distinction.

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