How kids make sense of the media
Updated: August 27, 2012 6:02AM
If it feels like your kids watch more television or are in front of a screen significantly more than you were at their age, you’re probably right. According to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, youth ages 8-18 average 7.5 hours of media consumption per day.
“When multitasking — consuming more than one form of media at the same time — is taken into effect, the total jumped to 10 hours and 45 minutes.”
This means that approximately 85 percent of our youth’s day is spent interpreting a mix of positive and negative media messages. Of course, not all media consumed is a negative influence, i.e. Discovery Channel vs. “Jersey Shore.” But in order to help our youth make positive decisions about the media they choose to tune into and what they do with the messages after they are received, we have to educate them.
In order to fully grasp this topic, it is important to understand a little bit about how your teenager’s brain functions. The pre-frontal cortex is the “decision-making” cortex of the brain located just behind the forehead, and research tells us that teens have an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex. This means that the teenager is more apt to react on instinct versus thinking, “Is this a good/safe/mature choice?” When a person learns a new skill or lesson, the neural connections in that part of the brain strengthen through acquiring more myelin. Myelin is like the insulation on an electrical wire, so the more myelin coating there is around our nerves, the faster and the neurotransmissions are able to move. For a teen, the myelin coating on the nerves in the prefrontal cortex is fairly weak, meaning these “decision-making” transmissions are rather slow. This means that your teen is able to fully understand why bungee jumping is extremely risky a month after they do it.
This is risky when taking in 10.5 hours of media per day because of the consistency of the media messages. If a negative message is continually reinforced, the teen’s brain will actively reinforce the myelin coating on those misinformed neural pathways. Simply, the more a teen hears a curse word in a song, the more normalized it becomes, the more likely they are to curse even knowing that it’s frowned upon. So, media is effective because it is consistent. Teens will listen to music every day, but they might not talk with their parents every day. Every time the opportunity arises, parents must take these “teachable moments” to help the teen re-evaluate and dissect the more realistic message being portrayed.
This has to be a multidimensional approach coming from parents, schools, peers and media, not to mention some of their own self-discovery. It is also important to remember that teaching doesn’t mean lecturing. Encourage your teen to consider all sides; play devil’s advocate. The teenage brain is able to learn new information quickly so do not be afraid to challenge their thinking.
We have to remember that developmentally, teenagers are trying to bridge their own real-life experiences with the experiences of others. So give them the opportunity to discover how their lives are different than others and how their choices may also be different as well. It’s important to be honest, open, positive, and nondiscriminatory in these discussions. Don’t be frustrated if your teen is arguing, that may just be their way of considering all points.
The return on investment on your teen’s interpretation of media may not be immediate and there isn’t a clear cut way to measure what “might” have happened had you not taken an active educational stance. However, if there is no attempt at all then we leave their thoughts and feelings completely out of our hands. As parents, educators, and influencers with fully formed pre-frontal cortexes in our brains, we know that this is not a risk worth taking.
Tara Witt is a health educator for the Robert Crown Center for Health Education in Hinsdale.