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Child media expert talks about navigating 'a river of electronic screens'

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 28 2014 1:05 a.m. MST

Media experts met with Utah parents Saturday morning to discuss the influence of technology and media consumption on children and families. Parents were counseled to stay informed about their children's media choices and to not limit screen time.

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PROVO — Although it may be a parent’s first inclination to remove electronics from the home or set time restrictions for their children, one pediatrician doesn't recommend it.

“Media are tools, so prioritize (the day) with that in mind,” said Dr. Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital. “Build the day’s schedule from the ground up, and see how much time is left for media. There should be no time limits on screens because that leads to deprivation and rebellion. Anytime you limit something, kids want it more.”

Rich, also an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health, was the keynote speaker at a Jan. 25 "parental controls" seminar at the Utah Valley Convention Center, co-sponsored by Comcast and the Daily Herald.

His remarks were titled “Finding Huck Finn: Reclaiming Childhood from a River of Electronic Screens.”

Rich has focused his research on how to raise children in a healthy media environment. He believes that media tool usage should never be a punishment or reward for behavior because it leads to a “forbidden fruit” mindset — something that may come as a surprise to every parent who has locked away an iPad or video game controller when a child acted out.

The significance of media in our lives — and particularly the lives of children who are still developing — is that what we see and interact with has the power to change who we are.

“We have to get realistic,” Rich said. “Our behavior does change. The problem is that we have gotten into a debate driven largely by values, about right and wrong and good and bad. What we need to do is think about media in a way that’s evidence based.”

This may seem counterintuitive to parents who closely monitor what their children are watching. Media consumption, of course, is often determined by value sets and what is deemed appropriate to be watched. However, Rich argued that if 10 people are put in a room to discuss media values, they will likely emerge with the exact same opinions they had when they entered.

While values are important, action needs to be taken based on what research and evidence show, Rich argued. Whether one parent feels that X amount of television is acceptable or not, it is a better use of time to look at what that amount of television does to a child’s brain and personality, he said.

Rich encouraged parents to look at their child’s day as a menu of experience. Often, good parenting and good media choices complement each other.

“What we feed a child’s mind is as important as what we feed her body," Rich said.

In a world where “digital natives” (children) may have more media knowledge than “digital immigrants” (parents), how do parents approach their children about media involvement in a way that doesn’t seem intrusive or archaic?

The seminar’s panel — which included Rich — suggested parents start by being transparent with both knowledge and fears.

Parents shouldn’t use the excuse that they don’t feel comfortable on the Internet. With media ranging from Facebook to Instagram to Snapchat to Tumblr, there are bound to be things parents that don’t understand. The first step toward a "digital dialogue" is for parents to approach media and its many platforms from an angle that is not defensive or fearful.

The panel suggested that having children teach parents about media is a great experience that flips the paradigm. Because children spend their whole lives being instructed and even reprimanded by parents, it can be refreshing for them to be the ones in charge.

This shift from “I’m going to catch you” to “I’m going to support you” is crucial if parents wish to understand the role media plays in their children’s lives. Panel members suggested frequenting online app stores and search engines to discover which media is popular, and then asking their children about it. Parents need to stay informed, and kids need to be willing to talk and compromise.

“We have to parent in the digital domain,” Rich said. “We can’t just say, ‘I don’t get it.’ ”

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