nature-cat-insectsSome things in life are certain. The sun will rise and set each day. When the smoke detector chirps, it will be at two in the morning. Appliances break right after the warranty expires. The line you choose at the grocery store will always be the slowest. And since Philo Farnsworth announced it to the world in the 1930s, perhaps nothing has been more constant in our lives than television. And with TV comes another constant for parents—children will always want to watch TV.

For some parents, watching TV is the worst way their children could spend their time. For others, TV provides a welcome, temporary respite from this hard thing we do called parenting. Some parents shield their kids from TV at all costs. Others use it to help their kids learn, especially from educational programming. But regardless of how your family approaches TV (and when I say TV I’m referring also to movies), it’s not going away anytime soon.

Research provides evidence that TV can be both good and bad for kids. Some content is helpful. Some content, not so much. And even if kids don’t watch TV, they’ll be exposed to the messages on TV at school, at friends’ houses, and all around them in the culture in which we find ourselves embedded. So, the question we should ask ourselves as parents is not “will we” or “won’t we” allow TV, but how can we help our kids enjoy the good and avoid the bad that comes with TV.

Here are four specific things you can do—starting today—to help your child make the most of TV and movies:

Evaluate and change (if necessary) your own TV habits. Research shows that the best predictor of what kids watch, and how much they watch, is their parents’ TV habits. If your kids see you watching educational television, they will be more likely to also watch it. If your kids see you watching talk shows, they’ll likely want to watch them too. Our kids are always watching us, even when—and perhaps especially when—we’re watching TV.

Use TV to connect with your kids. Our youngest daughter loves Wild Kratts. There is something about animals and nature that seems to capture her attention like nothing else. She even had a Wild Kratts-themed birthday party this year. One Wednesday evening several months ago we turned on PBS and found Nature, a show dedicated to all things, well, nature. Since that day, we have rarely missed an episode. We both look forward to sitting on the couch together every Wednesday night. It’s kind of become our “thing.” Not only do we learn some really cool stuff, but we get time that is set apart for us to just hang out together. In a busy world, those moments are increasingly special.

Talk to your kids about TV. According to research, one of the most important things parents can do to help children develop good media habits is to talk to them about what they watch. This is especially true for kids as they approach and enter adolescence. Kids need rules about TV, yes, but parent-child conversations about TV do more to help them understand and create meaning from what they see than perhaps anything else parents can do, especially for teenagers. Parents can point out the good and bad things characters do.

Parents can supplement lessons from educational programming. For older kids, it is better for parents to share their opinion—and to ask for their child’s opinion—about television content, instead of stating that something is good or bad as if it were fact. Older kids want to be able to make up their own minds about what is good and bad, and parents’ opinions will help guide them as they create their own opinions.

Use TV to say what you can’t say. There is nothing I want more in the world than for my kids to feel a sense of self-worth and to feel like they can accomplish anything. We try to tell them that regularly, but parents need all the help we can get. So, shortly after it was released we took our four daughters to watch “Hidden Figures” in the theater. As you know, the movie is about several African American women who played in integral role in the space race in the 1960s. The movie said what we couldn’t say. It showed our daughters in a very powerful way that regardless of the obstacles they face, they can become whoever and whatever they want.

Parenting is hard, to be sure. Media parenting, specifically, takes a lot of effort. But just as TV is a constant in kids’ lives, our consistent and constant efforts at helping them make the most of the time they spend with TV can pay big dividends in the long run. Hard? Yes. Worth it? That’s as sure as the sun coming up in the morning.

About Eric Rasmussen, PhD

Eric Rasmussen, PhD, is a husband, father of four, professor of communication, and children and media researcher. He is the author of ChildrenAndMediaMan.com, and his mission is to get research about children and media off the academic shelves and into the hands of those who need it most—parents.

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