My kids have an unnatural relationship with the media. This has a lot to do with what I do for a living. Script writing and media reviewing have led me to attend a great many film premieres and I’ve often had one of my three boys tagging along. In fact, they’ve got so used to the experience that it’s led to some awkward moments.

I vividly remember taking my 10-year-old to a movie during the holidays a few years back and he was visibly disappointed when we got to our seats. He wanted to know where the free popcorn and drinks were. I had to explain to him, “Daddy had to buy these tickets. You might have noticed that the carpet we walked in on wasn’t red?”

I share this story not to brag but to preface a confession. It does not matter how deeply involved you are in the media as a parent, you can still be daunted by the power modern entertainment has to shape your child’s outlook. You are also just as capable as any parent of making significant blunders.

So, what follows is a media parent’s guide for how to media-proof your kids.

Early adopters . . . early

My children were early adopters when it came to watching and interacting with the media. On the positive side, they had two media professionals watching alongside of them (my wife is a producer), talking to them about what they were seeing and training them—hopefully—to look behind the animations and special effects to find out what was really going on.

On the other hand, they were interacting with a lot more material, a lot earlier than most. We confess to having done our fair share of letting the television “babysit” our kids as we worked.

As a consequence of their father writing about new media trends, they also grew up with iPads, streaming services and computers. Add to that, they were amongst the earliest kids to get mobiles. Consequently, I know what a fellow parent means when they say, “There’s so much to keep track of—how can I ever do it?”

As adults, we barely understand how much we are taking in. How are we supposed to understand what our children are absorbing? And have you ever tried to limit the amount of time a teen spends interacting with the media? They switch seamlessly from gaming consoles to computers to televisions to mobile phones, all in the same hour. Sometimes I think I am more familiar with the tops of their heads than I am with their faces.

Protecting our kids

Any attempt at protecting our kids from the adverse effects of the media must be twofold. The first step is understanding what the media are doing. The second is knowing how to subvert their messaging.

The first thing to realise about media is right there in the word: it’s a plural. There are multiple formats of communication, each of which has its own specific power.

Take films for example. The power of a movie lies in the worldview that it presents. Every film has a worldview—no exceptions—because they are all written, produced and directed by people who have specific ways of seeing the world.

I’m a Christian and I have a certain way of viewing the world. Last year I was in a Southeast Asian country working on a documentary on sex slavery. When I sat down to write that script, I wasn’t writing a Christian script. However, I couldn’t help my Christian viewpoint that all people are valuable because they are God’s creation from affecting the material I chose to include and the emphasis I gave to each.

Other media producers react in similar ways when producing box office blockbusters. Take Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom for example. The surface story concerns a villain called Black Manta who is trying to resurrect an ancient army of demons hell-bent on destroying the world.

However, right at the heart of Aquaman’s struggle against these nefarious creatures is an environmental agenda. Black Manta is heating up the planet, causing extreme weather events by releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere—which are conveniently coloured green, in case you miss the point.

We might agree that this seems a very positive association between villains and environmental degradation. But to what extent does that lead us to consider developing countries as the “bad guys” because of their contribution to environmental problems? What if they are the victims of inequitable Western practices that forcibly shape their economies?

Changing attitudes through exposure

These messages gain even more power when they are promoted by interactive media products like electronic games. Why were parent groups so upset by the release of Grand Theft Auto V (GTAV) in 2023? Because at some level we instinctively understand that, through active participation and repetition, games teach appropriate responses to certain situations.

GTAV focuses on illegal activities rather than the more heroic quests players can carry out in other games. The series has glamourised depictions of gang warfare and criminality. However, the latest version built on past practices of roughing up prostitutes to get information by including hidden sexual minigames and graphic torture scenes that had to be played through for players to progress a mission.

The content is distasteful, certainly, but my main concern is not that players are likely to start up crime syndicates in their local areas. Instead, it is the development of casual attitudes to legality and the low-level misogyny that are rehearsed every time the game boots up.

“That’s alright,” you say, “I’d never allow my children to play a game like that.” But how are you going with online video? Video traffic makes up 82 per cent of worldwide internet traffic. The chances are your child is contributing to that statistic.

There are obvious social impacts. The popularity of YouTube Shorts is well on the way to reducing global concentration spans, teaching children to evaluate what they are watching in seconds and swipe to more entertaining content. We might say the same for Instagram Stories or Reels.

The power of influence

But it’s the videos we do watch that are cause for greater concern. Infamous “man’s man” Andrew Tate found himself banned from Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube in 2022 for hate speech. Yet reshares and memes based on his content continue to ensure his opinions are still widely disseminated.

On a more whimsical note, TikTok’s “Angel Receptionist” aims to give viewers a comedic insight into what heaven is really like and how everyone (except racists) is welcome there. It might seem easy to dismiss, but commenters regularly praise the host for giving them hope about their departed parents or children. Emotive? Yes. Powerful? Undeniably.

And then, of course, there is social media, arguably the greatest influencer of them all. The number of social media users worldwide has swelled to a record 4.9 billion people. By 2027, that figure is expected to grow to close to 5.8 billion.

The average user now spreads their digital footprint across six to seven platforms a month, exposing themselves to a range of opinions that shape not just their worldview, but their self view.

Social media have taught users how to evaluate their lives. Instagram’s algorithms suggest images to users based on their likes, dislikes, and viewing history.

Not-so-social social media

Now, 40 per cent of Instagram users are 22 years old or younger. In 2019, Instagram’s own research uncovered that the service was making body image issues worse for one in three teenage girls.

Furthermore, the platforms that are ostensibly about drawing us closer together are actually guilty of increasing a sense of isolation and separation. A study conducted by the Cigna Loneliness Index discovered that 71 per cent of heavy social media users reported feelings of significant loneliness, a figure that is up 18 per cent from only a year ago. In fact, six per cent of American users and 13 per cent of British users even pointed to the photo sharing app as a reason for wanting to end their own life.

As a modern media professional, I firmly believe that following generations will view social media use as the cigarette of the 21st century. The statistics relating to the harm it causes are manifold; we are just coming to terms with them.

But media isn’t all bad

All of the above might sound a bit “Henny Penny”, encouraging the binning of computers before the sky falls in. But the same media tools that are currently doing significant damage within families can actually be used for purposes of positive education, political activism and social cohesion.

However, in order to achieve this, parents must learn in the second case to subvert their more damaging messages. The first step to doing so is teaching yourself to detect those messages. Rather than simply consume alongside our kids, we should begin to ask ourselves questions about the entertainment we digest.

I am a big supporter of easy to remember queries like:

  • “What does this content tell me about life?”
  • “What does this tell me about human beings?”
  • “What does this tell me about God?”

Getting into the habit of interrogating your media doesn’t have to be a solitary exercise, either. I have been in the habit of asking my kids similar questions in the 10 minutes it takes to drive home from a movie—“Who was the hero in that story?” and “What do you think it was all about?” It has become such a familiar conversation that now they ask me.

Controlling content

The second step is to assert your role as the gate-keeper in your own house. There is some truth in the cliché, “So long as you’re living under my roof . . .” as it reflects a parent’s enduring role to protect their child. To do so, you must be prepared to control content, the rate of exposure and the context of digestion.

Controlling content might mean locking devices down so that only certain apps are accessible and downloading more requires parental permission.

Regulating the rate of exposure might mean limiting PS5 time to the weekend.

Defining the context of digestion might mean keeping computers in public spaces, or alternatively deciding that phones don’t belong at dinner.

Which raises the truth that gates aren’t respected if you are consistently leaving them open for yourself. If you are gaming into the night or taking calls at the table you will find it hard to get any regard for the limitations you impose.

Provide alternatives

The third step to subverting the power of the media is filling the void you create. Don’t just deny—supply. Provide alternatives to media content that work towards creating outcomes you can support.

My wife and I regularly ask each other about things we see going on in our household, “Where will this end?” And if we don’t like the destination, we take steps to find a different one.

Rather than encourage electronic introversion, we purchase games we can play together and schedule what nights we’ll be doing them on. We’ve made electronic pastimes contingent on more helpful activities. Half-an-hour of reading buys our boys one hour of electronic time.

And we don’t demonise the media either—how could we? It literally pays our bills. But we do make sure we share it together. You’d be surprised how engaged kids can be in picking a TV show they’re going to stream with you at a regular time each week.

Get the first word in

The final step to diminishing the power of the media is disrupting the messages it transmits. The media is nowhere more powerful than in a vacuum. What do you really know about the Napoleonic Wars that you didn’t learn from Napoleon? Your children will accept as gospel anything the media tells them for which they don’t have a pre-existing point of view.

If you want them to value people, you have to teach them why they are valuable. If you want them to make morally different choices, you have to explain to them what your morals are. If you want them to know God, you have to introduce them to Him.

The scale of information and opinion on offer is so vast that there has never been a more important time in history for families to adopt a regular “quiet time” when they can consider what they believe and, most importantly, Who they believe in.

Now you might think that this sort of regular spiritual conversation is beyond you, but I would argue that this is exactly the position of humility from which you should proceed. Recognising that we are small in the face of such vast electronic forces should naturally throw us on to the resources of the One who is greater than them all.

As the Bible puts it, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” and “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will lift you up.” The entirety of the internet, streaming video and social media are small matters to Him.

Read next

This article was first published in Signs of the Times.

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