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September 27, 2012
Dr. Michael Rich is the Director of the Center on Media and Child Health.
Last winter, a father read an angry letter his 15-year-old daughter had posted on Facebook. In response, he put nine bullets into her laptop and posted the video online. Within weeks, it had garnered millions of hits and tens of thousands of comments.
Why so much attention? Certainly the shock value of his rage drew people’s attention. But he also verbalized some very common frustrations of parenting digital natives, and graphically played out a response to the powerlessness that parents often feel. Communicating feelings and finding ways to feel empowered are both important processes -- but parents need ways to do so that support children’s healthy development, rather than terrifying and humiliating them.
Parents need a new way to relate to their children’s use of technology. They need information and skills that can help them see, understand, and feel welcomed to engage with the positive capabilities of these powerful tools. Here are some research-based ways to develop a friendly relationship with your children’s media use, teach your children to avoid possible pitfalls, and even use media to help you parent:
1. Understand why social media are so important to youth. During adolescence, young people are developing from a dependent child into an independent adult. They have healthy drives to establish individual identities, to seek experience, and to connect with peers. Social media provide a fertile arena for doing so in the perceived safety of virtual space. This teenager was doing exactly that -- reaching out to peers for help with handling her frustration about her parents (a feeling that actually helps ease the separation that’s occuring).
2. Remember that children are children, whether offline or online. Human brains don’t develop executive functions until mid- to late 20s, so impulse control and future thinking are as difficult for them as walking is for 10-month-olds. They need help understanding the consequences of their actions and that, although complaining to each other about their parents is normal, it has additional costs if they do so online.
3. Clarify the guidelines of online safety and respect to avoid negative consequences. Young people are going to push boundaries and make mistakes; that’s part of how they learn. As is often true with adolescents, the daughter vented her feelings in a way that was hurtful to her father -- and, because it was online instead of in a diary, many (many) people saw it. Her father can work with her to set guidelines about how to use these media, and establish together the consequences for overstepping them.
4. Don’t deny that they know media better than you do. Use it to your benefit -- ask them to teach you about media, whether it’s showing you how to use Facebook or introducing you to a new app for your phone. This approach flips the dynamic so they are the experts, and you acknowledge their expertise. This can help build the trust and openness necessary to support other, more difficult conversations in the future.
5. Recognize, respect, and encourage the positive that children can accomplish. Build on the respect you show for your children’s online expertise, and use their developing sense of social justice and altruism to think of ways to use these powerful tools to make the world a better place.
Use media challenges as an opportunity to support your children’s health, build positive relationships, and help them take advantage of what media have to offer. This approach will help you teach the lessons you’d like them to learn (like using communication rather than violence to express their feelings) and make your family’s relationship to media a positive one.
For more of Dr. Rich’s thoughts on the video, listen to this story from The Takeaway.
Dr. Michael Rich is the Director of the Center on Media and Child Health. An Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and Associate Professor of Society, Human Development, and Health at Harvard School of Public Health, he came to medicine after a twelve-year career as a filmmaker. As the Mediatrician®, he uses scientific evidence about the powerful positive and negative effects of media to advise children and those who care for them on how to use media in ways that optimize their development.
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