by Jennifer Ladner

Allowing a child to watch television for a half-hour to get ready for work or to get dinner started is a common parenting practice, yet many parents feel guilty when they hand over a tablet or smart phone to their child, especially if they are in public and may receive a disapproving look from another parent.  In a recent article titled, The Touch Screen Generation,” published in the April issue of The Atlantic, author Hanna Rosin describes her conversations with app developers at the Dust and Magic Conference last spring. When describing their own children's media use, developers used phrases such as “purely educational” or “Wednesdays and weekends for a half hour.” Even parents who work in the tech industry feel the need to justify their children's screen time privileges. All parents want to make the right decisions for their children and sometimes that turns into judgment of others' parenting techniques, including their rules for screen time.

Over half a century of research on the effects of television viewing on children tells us that excessive screen time can lead to things like language delays, aggressive behavior, and other health-related problems. At the same time, research has shown that limited exposure to carefully-selected media can increase cognitive skills and pro-social behavior in children. Clearly, navigating the media landscape is not simple.  A recent study in Pediatrics, a publication by the American Academy of Pediatrics, showed that changing the content that children are exposed to on television, from programs containing violence to programs with pro-social behavior, can have a positive impact on children's behavior.  When  making decisions about the role that technology plays in their children's (and their own) lives, it is important for parents to have support and guidance.

The following tips provide guidance for parents to make informed decisions about the role that media plays in shaping their family's lifestyle.

·       Raise awareness & lead by example. The very first step to becoming media literate is becoming more aware of how pervasive media is in our lives.  Be mindful of when children are competing with your computer or smart phone for your attention. Model the behavior that you want your children to learn.

·       Make informed decisions about quality and quantity of children's media use.  When selecting media, use DVDs, DVR or OnDemand options. There is always another show “up next” when watching broadcast television and cable, plus it is easier to control exposure to advertising with recorded videos. Even in light of the study referenced above, the AAP recommends children are exposed to no more that 2 hours of screen time a day.

·       Select media that is developmentally appropriate and encourages interaction. Experts recommend that parents co-view shows with kids (especially small children), but that expectation is unrealistic for many busy parents. Instead of feeling guilty about letting a child use media, parents can be confident in the media choices they mindfully select. Common Sense Media is a great resource for ratings and reviews of children's media. 

·       Balance media use with other activities such as reading, creative play, and time outdoors. Every family's media management plan will be different because every family is different.  Spending time together is what matters most.

·       Ask yourself, “How does this tool add value to my child's life experiences?”  Media do not replace real-world experiences, but they can provide a tremendous opportunity to enrich a child's life.

The media are powerful tools and they can help parents connect with their children. There are also exciting possibilities for interactive technologies to enhance children's educational experiences. As a media literacy educator, I believe that media and digital technologies provide an amazing opportunity to impact children's (and adults') lives in positive ways. As a parent, I feel that it is my responsibility to provide a balance of opportunities for my children to develop the skills they will need to become successful communicators, better critical thinkers, and positive contributors to society.

So the next time you see a parent hand their child a tablet in line at the grocery store, or you witness a child  using a smart phone at a restaurant, think about the role that media and technology play in your own life. Afterall, media are communication tools. They are not bad or good in and of themselves.  It is how we use these tools which allows us to maximize the benefits and minimize the potential harm that can come from the overuse and misuse of media.

Updated January 13, 2016. This article was previously published on May, 26, 2013 at Telegram.com (http://www.telegram.com/article/20130526/NEWS/130529725/-1/RSS02&source=rss

TEN FACTS ABOUT KIDS AND MEDIA (And why media literacy is so important for children today)

by Jennifer Ladner, Co-founder of Screen Savvy Kids

Have you sent a text, used a social media site, talked on a cell phone, watched television, or used a tablet today? Could you go 24 hours without the internet or your cell phone? Media and communication technologies play an important role in our daily lives, but many of us worry about the impact that it has on our children. 

Not only are we concerned with the amount of time children spend in front of a screen, but we are also concerned about the content they absorb. Media literacy allows children (and families) to become more aware of both intended and unintended media messages. Children learn to create and think critically about these media messages. These skills allow children to take control of the media that surrounds them, rather than letting it control them. Here are 10 reasons why media literacy should be on your radar.

1. We live in a media-saturated world.
Many of us walk around with wireless technology in the palm of our hands. Media and communication technologies are increasingly becoming integrated into our every waking moment. According to a study by Common Sense Media, 52 percent of 5- to 8-year-olds have used some form of mobile media. We tweet, text, post and talk all day and yet sometimes we feel very disconnected from the people around us. Many have trouble disconnecting even on vacation.

2. Children today spend an average of 28-32 hours per week in front of a screen according to Nielsenwire.com.
Another report by the American Academy of Pediatrics notes that children spend more time with various media (an average of 7 hours per day) than they do in any other daily activity other than sleeping.

3. Health effects of media.
Among the many health concerns, various studies suggest a strong relationship between high exposure to violence in the media and aggressive behavior, as well as a strong correlation between heavy television viewing and obesity, substance use, and increased sexual activity at younger ages. Additionally, the American Academy of Pediatrics study noted that children with a television in their bedroom are twice as likely to smoke and many children have a television in their bedroom by the age of three.

4. Advertising is a self-regulated industry.
Government regulations are limited, especially when it comes to advertising on the internet. The Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU) is a Self-Regulatory Program designed by the National Advertising Review Council (NARC) in 1974. According to the program guidelines, “The standards take into account the special vulnerabilities of children.” Does this seem like an effective program to you?

5. Diversity of opinion in the media is lacking.
The majority of all media is controlled by just five media conglomerates including Disney, Time Warner, Murdoch's News Corporation, Bertelsmann of Germany, and Viacom. Columbia Journalism Review's website (http://www.cjr.org/resources/) allows one to look up newspapers, radio stations, magazines and production studios that are owned by various companies. Flipping through hundreds of television channels makes it seems like we have endless choices, but the sources of the information are extremely limited.

6. Turning off the computer or television does not solve the problem.
From the billboards that line the highways to the teenager with the logo on his T-shirt in front of you at the check-out counter, media messages surround us on a daily basis. Try to write down the name of all the advertisements and logos that you encounter in a day and you will quickly realize how much media penetrates your life. Becoming media literate increases one's awareness of media and its impact on each of our lives.

7. Children need media literacy skills to be successful in any career in a digital world.
Whether one chooses to learn a trade or obtain a college degree, most children will enter a career that requires some technical competency and comfort with some form of media. Children with media literary skills will be better prepared for a successful future.

8. Literacy in a digital world requires more than reading and writing skills.
It requires the ability to create and think critically about media messages. The development of these skills will have a lasting impact for children in their personal lives and professional endeavors.

9. It is about maximizing the benefits and minimizing the potential harm.
There is conflicting evidence on the value of technology on child development. In addition to the health concerns mentioned earlier, research has also shown media can be powerful tools for teaching and learning. Children have displayed increased cognitive and social abilities when media are used effectively. Studies have also shown benefits for children with special needs, home-school connections, and dual-language learners according to a joint position statement of the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children's Media at Saint Vincent College.

10. Media literacy skills are part of the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks, 21 Century Skills and Common Core State Standard Initiatives.
Educators across the country recognize the need for these skills, but many are faced with budget cuts that make it difficult to purchase technologies and train teachers.

This article was updated January 13, 2016. A previous version of this article was published on September 5, 2012,  at Telegram.com (http://www.telegram.com/article/20120905/NEWS/120909939/0)