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Get Kids on a Healthy Media Diet for Summer

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Good health is about more than strong bones and good teeth. It’s about physical, mental, social, and emotional wellness. The media messages and images that our kids consume through TV, movies, video games, the Internet, music, and cell phones shape their values and behavior in ways that can be healthy or unhealthy.

But media runs right through the center of our kids’ lives, so what’s a parent to do? It’s up to us to help them use the media they love both wisely and well. Common Sense Media answers a parent’s question regarding summer media habits.

Q: It’s taken exactly one week of summer vacation for my 13-year-old to become a couch potato. I know he needs some downtime, but what can I do to balance his (sometimes questionable) TV, (T-rated) video games, and (social pipeline) Internet life with real life now that he doesn’t always listen to me?

A: Balance doesn’t come naturally to kids this age. And the media your son is watching, playing, and using represents a new stage of freedom—he’s hit the teen years and has jumped into a new content category. But there are some things you can do:

His homework might be done, but yours is just starting. Read beyond the ratings for new TV shows, Web sites, and video games. Sometimes you have to actually watch the shows. And you absolutely have to check the Internet histories and browse kids’ MySpace pages. If older teens have one, they might not want to give up their password, but you can at least ask them to link to your own page so you can monitor what they’re posting. They may not like it, but at least you can guide them about certain real no-no’s.

Draw limits around content. Consider a strict no-M-rated-video-games policy. Or a nix on R-rated movies (even if your son’s friends have all seen Knocked Up, he’ll live) and MTV reality shows. For older teens, try watching alongside or just hovering during viewings and tossing in your own two cents; they’ll probably keep watching, but at least you know your messages are getting in there, too.

Make rules, but keep them manageable. Try this one: Nothing that has a button gets pushed until an hour of reading (or a set list of chores) is done. No computer, no games, no TV. Pick your battles, but keep them simple. Set time limits on TV, Internet, and game use. Stick to them. Get a timer if you must.

Make plans. For whatever reason, kids like to stay home during the summer. If you’re working during the day, that means your rules go right out the window. Make your kids make plans to see their friends. Enroll them in a sports clinic at the park. Or summer school, an SAT prep class, art school, or drama camp—anything to get them out and going.

Enroll them in a local Y or community center. At 13, kids are old enough to go on their own. They can work out, swim, or play a game of pick-up hoops.

Have them keep a log. It won’t last long. But when they see 5 hours of screen time versus 30 minutes of exercise and 0 face-to-face friend contacts, you’ll have a chance to point out the potential physical, emotional, and social fall-out—because that’s a recipe for weight gain, brain drain, and loneliness!


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