John K. Burton, M.D.
Healthy media for children is about identifying the potential benefits to children from the various forms of media. Media can include television, radio, and the movies, as well as the internet, video games, and even toys. All of these forms of media are a part of the modern child's world. It is impossible, and probably not even desirable, to prevent children from being exposed to these aspects of their world. Instead, parents, teachers, and other adults can use principles of healthy media to make the child's media experience one that enriches the imagination, fosters the child's social and moral development, and helps build a secure sense of self. The following guidelines are offered to help adults create a healthy media environment for children.
Teach Children to View Media Critically - The most important way that parents can ensure a positive media experience is to share it with the child. That way, the parent is present to help the child understand what he sees. The power of a parent's presence in the child's life is far greater than the power of the media to which the child is exposed. This sharing helps the child to think critically about what he sees and teaches him that he has his own thoughts, ideas, and opinions. The parent's active and respectful presence shows the child that he can be responsible for his own actions, making him less likely to be swayed by negative influences.
Make Choice of Programs a Family Dialogue - Sharing an activity as a family puts the emphasis of power on the family, rather than on the media. It is not merely the number of hours of television a child watches that determines its influence, but the amount of involvement the family has relative to the television. By discussing in an open dialogue with the child what programs should be watched, parents can learn a great deal about their children's opinions and desires. Children are also gratified to know that their parents are interested in hearing what they would like, even if they do not have every wish granted.
Choose Programs that Reflect Parental Values - Every decision about what is appropriate for a child reflects a particular social agenda. The people most responsible for deciding what that agenda will be for a child are his parents. What may be desirable values for one family may be inconsequential to another. By maintaining an active role in selecting media, parents exercise their important role as the child's primary teachers and role models.
Portray Clear Moral Issues - Children are keen observers of a variety of interpersonal, social, and moral issues. However, they are limited by the level of their own cognitive development. A child may be precocious and highly intelligent, but his ability to comprehend complex, moral issues develops at its own rate. The concept of ambivalence, that people are a mix of bad and good, is a sophisticated idea. It is often not until adolescence that a child is able to comprehend ambivalence fully. It is confusing to children when they see a character that does bad things portrayed in a positive light. While a "good guys and bad guys" mentality may seem simplistic to adults, it is helpful for children in their continuing struggle to understand the difference between right and wrong.
Identify Positive Role Models - One of the most important ways that all people learn, especially children, is through imitation. Depictions of well-developed characters and relationships in a positive light helps the child to foster these positive qualities in himself. For example, if a child watches a character he admires treat his little sister with affection, he is more likely to behave in a caring manner with his own siblings.
Foster Richness of Imagination -The rich narratives of fairy tales have long been appreciated for their power to stimulate imagination and help children struggle with deep emotional issues important to them. Fairy tales are not without references to violent and cruel acts, but such depictions are within a context that allows the child to deal with his frightening thoughts and feelings. Gratuitous violence without meaning and without a moral context does not provide the child with any means to process such phenomenon. At the same time, avoiding portrayals of aggression altogether is equally detrimental. A well-developed narrative and engaging characters stimulate the child's own creativity and helps him to process, rather than avoid, difficult thoughts and feelings.