Is modern media making your kids lose their manners?
In the 1930s, a child’s reward for a hard day’s work was gathering around the radio and listening to comedians like Eddie Cantor and Ed Wynn. The ‘60s brought classic cartoons and Saturday mornings with footie pajamas and a bowl of Wackies cereal. Today, as kids take in episodes of iCarly and Good Luck Charlie, they simultaneously fiddle with their iPod Touch, update their Facebook status, and send dozens upon dozens of text messages.
Not only has the medium through which our children are entertained evolved, the content itself has changed ... and it might not necessarily be for the better. From reality shows excessively showing what comes across as positive reinforcement for promiscuous behavior to tween sitcoms portraying characters with attitude problems, children are constantly bombarded with mixed signals on appropriate behavior.
According to some local experts and parents, vast multimedia exposure that displays poor quality content may not only help promote disrespectful behavior, it may even have socially crippling effects that could last a lifetime.
Understanding Behavioral Issues
“Rude, disrespectful behaviors can be attributed to a variety of causes,” says Anne Blair, a mom, clinical social worker and therapist with her own practice in Voorhees. “These behaviors must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis in order to determine the contributing factors. You always want to rule out any potential medical issue that could present itself as a behavioral problem. Family dynamics, parenting style, a child’s temperament and any major changes [such as death, divorce or relocation] are all potential contributing factors that may influence behavioral problems.”
Stratford psychologist Dr. Thomas P. Brooks, a father of five who served for 30 years in South Jersey schools in a variety of settings, including school psychologist and director of special services, says language and behavioral problems are more often than not identified at the preschool level.
“The … vast majority of these issues are brain behavior issues, and a lot of them have to do with the development of the neurological system and the brain growth that occurs,” he says. Brooks feels this is particularly true up to and all throughout the elementary school years.
When it comes to rude or defiant behavior, a simply fussy child can eventually be satisfied—even though it may take a lot of time and energy to get there. The defiant toddler or child never seems to quit. And even if a settlement is negotiated at some point, another issue comes up tomorrow or the next day.
The Social Influence
In the past, a child’s day was spent in school, followed by a healthy dose of outdoor activities with friends and siblings. Homework was done at the kitchen table, not behind the computer screen, where Mom and Dad, not Google, helped solve the problems. In the digital world, however, children’s attention has shifted.
“Kids are spending less time in a family environment, and more time in an isolated circumstance while using their electronics,” Blair divulges. “This means there is less communication, guidance and supervision by parents, all of which can leave a teen without clear guidelines for appropriate behavior.”
The Kaiser Family Foundation states that kids ranging from 8 to 18 years old spend four hours a day in front of a TV screen and an additional two hours on the computer (outside of schoolwork) and playing video games. As etiquette coach Dawn Burke Sena will tell, living life behind a screen can have long-term effects.
“It is an incredible influence in the dynamic of generations. When everyone sits at the table with an electronic device, they are not connecting to one another; they are connecting to their device,” explains Sena. “That is when you are not sharpening your social skills on a daily basis. Eventually those skills get watered down over the generations and aren’t as strong as they were 10 or even five years ago.”
After working in the VIP hospitality service industry for 30 years, Sena founded Social Solutions Inc., an organization with “a commitment to the restoration of grace, poise and social protocol.” In 2009, she opened the doors to her Collingswood boutique, Charm, which caters to professionally minded women and holds etiquette classes for adults and their children.
“Employers are looking for leaders with charismatic social skills, and that ability to connect gets lost in the wake of social media. You need that interaction,” says Sena. “There are really conscientious parents out there and I applaud them. Sometimes they just need the back up.”
Kathleen Covert-Mininno, mom of three and former 11-year assistant prosecutor, couldn’t agree more. She brought her Cinnaminson Girl Scout troop in for one of Sena’s exercises.
“I think all positive influences combine to help teach children how to grow up as nice, respectful people,” says Mininno. “I feel that these positive influences are harder to come by than negative influences, unfortunately. We must go out of our way to find them, while bad influences are around us each and every day.”
Many of those influences come through programming that features promiscuity, violence and stereotyping—even in G-rated movies. Whether live action or animated, males are shown more than females, are not often shown engaging in relationships and do not solve problems peacefully, according to an article on the relationships between television and children, published by the University of Michigan.
“Media often portrays acceptable behavior as rude and disrespectful, and individuals are ‘rewarded’ for this behavior,” explains Brooks. “If that is a consistent message that a kid is seeing on TV every day and every week, then that is what he or she is going to learn.”
How to Deal
The importance of a parent’s role in a child’s life is undeniable. With technology rapidly changing, parents not only struggle to keep up, but they blindly encounter challenges that older generations didn’t have to face. The comforting thing is that the old-fashioned principles of parenting still apply.
“You have to pay attention to the kid,” Brooks says. “Just paying attention is an important part of the kid’s life and being a good model.”
As a mother of two and co-owner of a Burlington County hair salon, Debbie Shaw says even though she works long hours, she still makes every minute with her kids count.
“The lines of communication are very open,” says Shaw. “You have to explain why things are wrong to a kid, not just say they are. My kids are not perfect, but they know when shows and actions are inappropriate because I explain it to them.”
Both Shaw and Covert-Mininno acknowledge seeing behavior from TV reflected in their children’s at-home behavior, but setting boundaries, monitoring media usage and insisting on conversation all have made a tremendous difference in their kids’ disposition.
“The other thing is that it goes beyond the modeling of good behavior. You have to show that you are the authority figure,” explains Brooks. “A lot of parents give that up—they want to be friends and buddies with their kids and just want to enjoy it, live vicariously through their children, but that is wrong.”
The key to behavioral success, both Brooks and Blair agree, is identifying and rectifying any issues at a young age. Laying the structural groundwork for boundaries and limitations will have a direct effect on your child’s ability to properly function.
A Light at the End of the Tunnel
Of course, it is not fair to crucify all TV programs and social media. The Future of Children organization cited a large-scale study that examined a randomly selected week of television programming across 18 channels. Out of more than 2,000 children’s shows, three-fourths of the programs (73 percent) featured at least one act of altruism, which is defined as helping, sharing, giving or donating. As the organization states, “Watching two hours of Sesame Street will provide a young child with a rich set of academic and social-emotional lessons; watching two hours of a superhero cartoon will recommend aggression as a way of solving problems.”
The old adage “You get what you give” truly applies to the social media and TV programming situation parents face. Consistent exposure to detrimental behavior will have detrimental results. “Parents shouldn’t blame themselves entirely; we all have free will,” says Brooks. “But on the other hand, they have to realize in some way they have contributed to the problem and must change the behaviors that contributed to them.”
We asked your opinions on Suburban Family's Facebook and Twitter pages and you responded.
"[The] Nickelodeon [channel] is not turned on in my home. I find iCarly to be the worst offender. We enjoy the Disney Channel though, [except for] So Random."—Kristi B.
"As an educator, I have to say television is definitely encouraging kids to feel more entitled to freedoms that tweens just shouldn't have. They watch shows where 12-year-olds are living on their own, traveling and living relatively unrealistic lives. In all of the shows, children rarely have adults that they actually listen to; when adults are involved, they are never considered authoritative-type people."— Mary C., sixth grade teacher
"We banned iCarly three years ago, along with Drake and Josh. [Our daughter] almost immediately parroted their demeanor and it was not becoming. I think the pithy "sassy speak" is funny to be sure, but in reality, it sounds crass and cold coming from people of any age." — Tim C., father of one
"I don't allow my kids to watch them. The kids are so rude to adults and each other. Plus the girls are all boy-crazy." —Gretchen T., mother of three
Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Family Magazine, Volume 3, Issue 1 (March, 2012).
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