Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Media and “The Meanest Mom in Town”
by Stephanie Rafanelli

In the interest of full disclosure, I have the “only” seventh grader in “the whole town” who does not have a mobile phone. According to his friends I might be the “meanest mom in town”…

As Madeline Levine persuasively contended in her most recent post, an essential job of parenting in our (especially electronic) media-saturated society is teaching media literacy. In fact, I believe this so strongly that I have incorporated media literacy activities into my classroom curriculum for over a decade. However, in our home we have delayed some of the thornier issues surrounding media inflow. We have one family computer and one television. Both sit in a public area and their use is determined by our family rules.

We expect our children to learn how to become savvy media consumers and we know that the learning process will probably involve some mistakes. For our thirteen year-old, we know he is not quite ready to tackle some of the decisions that accompany texting, immediate picture uploading, or constant availability. As the news will support, even ostensibly responsible and media-conscious political leaders need some more guidance with appropriate versus inappropriate electronic media usage.

In addition to delaying the purchase of a phone, we have limited the amount of media friction in our house by using this time-honored parental technique: distraction. Our oldest is an enthusiastic soccer and baseball player, so we found camps where he could both volunteer and also earn a little money as a junior counselor. The benefits of his “job” are many. He is out of the house and running around for most of the day. He is tired and needs to be up early, so his sleep timing has remained similar to his school-year schedule. He is developing a wonderful sense of responsibility and community through meeting and caring for a pack of younger players. His confidence is growing as he gets immediate and authentic feedback about being a competent counselor. His job skills and reference pool are expanding and will serve as a base when he eventually applies for a ‘real’ job. And, of course, he has much less time to try to negotiate electronic media time.

Encouraging adolescents to do something else with their time is perhaps an obvious, but I think important point. Video games, cell phones, computers, satellite television, iPods, iPads … the opportunity for electronic entertainment is abundant. It is far more prevalent than when I was a teenager.  As a result parents need to be more vigilant and more proactive in encouraging their children to experience and participate in the world around them without the filter of a screen.

In the not very distant future, our oldest will likely get a phone and/or a computer. We will continue to have a family electronic media contract and will involve our kids in determining a baseline rate plan with responsibility for overage. We will build up to allowing computer use in a more private space and will require our children to “friend” us when they get a social media account. We will keep reading the books and watching the shows our children are consuming so we can foster their ability to question what they are absorbing. We will insist that all electronic devices spend the night in the kitchen to preserve a sleep-friendly* bedroom.

As we often say at Challenge Success, one size does not fit all. Given the personalities of our ten and four year-old children, we predict the timing for each will be different. We have no idea where technology and electronic media will be in the next few years (our 4 year old was born into an iPhone and Facebook world, not so our 10 year old) so we continue to gauge each new freedom as our children and the landscape changes.

For now, I might remain the “meanest mom in town” for
another year . . .

*First, we hope to prevent nighttime social activity. Second, we think the research demonstrating that using a bright screen can delay the natural production of Melatonin, the body’s sleep hormone, is pretty compelling.

Stephanie Rafanelli is both a school coach and a parent education facilitator for Challenge Success. Stephanie has been a middle school science and math teacher for nineteen years. In addition to almost two decades in the classroom, she has served as department chair, both academic and also grade level Dean, a parent and faculty educator, and a leader of curriculum reform. She has founded and run several summer and afterschool programs such as Sally Ride Science Camp for Girls and Menlo Summer Explorations. Stephanie is an educational consultant for multiple organizations. When she is not thinking about education, Stephanie is usually creating chaos with her three children.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Friendships 2.0

This was written by a student (and friend) involved with Challenge Success. We appreciate his wlllingness to share his personal story with us.

I don’t have a Facebook account. Anymore.

About two years ago, I deleted it in a move which has since brought me a lot of weird looks and comments about how “out of the loop” I have become. People complain that I am now “hard to reach” and wonder how I manage to stay “in touch.” Which I all find very interesting. Because I have a phone. And an email address. And even a P.O. Box. And I also live on the same campus as them.

It is almost as if the rules of social interaction have been rewritten. Apparently, it is no longer socially acceptable to get by with seeing people face to face. So what is it about these new platforms that makes them such a crucial part of day to day life? Why do I really need one? And how did it get to the point where I found that they were actually hurting and not helping personal interactions?

Social media platforms have a variety of features which make them highly attractive. Yes, they make it easier to bridge distances, and they offer the gift of time in that you can be social at your convenience (if you can’t offer a response immediately, you can delay it without dropping the conversation). They also make it incredibly easy to share content with large groups of people, and keep tabs on people you might not see frequently. But more importantly, they promise something which you can never fully attain in reality: the chance to portray yourself in your own light. And this is what makes them so alluring.

When creating an online profile, everyone ends up re-inventing themselves without even realizing it. They don’t tell the whole story. Online social media platforms are strangely superficial worlds where everyone is flawless, and they have fun all the time. Because content is user-inputted, everyone always seems overwhelmingly happy, and always looks great in every picture. (After all, why would you want to put your flaws out in the open for all to see?) You rarely see people posting unflattering photos of themselves or talking about their insecurities. After all, why would they want to create that image for themselves? But as a result, interactions can never be genuine, and people become unhealthily concerned with their online appearance. Some might argue that “pictures never lie,” but in all actuality, are they really telling the truth if they don’t tell the whole story?   

Online profiles allow users to interact from a distanced perspective, which can be comforting, but is ultimately destructive. Sometimes, individuals become so used to interacting from behind their internet-fabricated fa├žade that face-to-face interaction can be awkward. Text inevitably muffles emotional complexity, and provides unnaturally lengthy pauses in between responses. It also makes privacy impossible (just think back to the last time you turned to a friend next to you and asked “how should I respond to this?”) This in itself has radically changed how people communicate. And to think that all of this has transpired in the past decade is quite alarming.

Online social media platforms may be fun and ubiquitous, but it’s important to consider the threats they pose. Sure they make it easy to talk to your friends, but what does a “friend” even mean anymore, and just how genuine are these interactions?

Saturday, June 2, 2012

by Dr. Madeline Levine

“Just five minutes more. Please.”

I’m certain there isn’t a parent alive who hasn’t been begged, implored, cajoled or even threatened by their otherwise reasonable youngster when faced with the command to shut down the television, computer, video game, Facebook page, smart phone or tablet. Little kids throw tantrums, bigger kids have meltdowns and teens slam doors. It’s as if we’re cutting their digital umbilical cord without warning or anesthesia.

Almost all forms of media consumption are up, and the average child is spending over seven and a half hours a day with different forms of media (actually, closer to 11 hours a day if you separate out all of the multi-tasking.)1 This is more time than most kids spend in school or with their families and friends. Parents have every right to be concerned about the impact of such a disproportionately large amount of time spent on activities that we know so little about in terms of their potential long-term consequences. Are our kids getting smarter, duller, more social, less social, more informed, less informed?

The questions are being put out there by all organizations concerned with the well-being of children. But definitive answers are few and far between. Certainly, we know some things. Babies and toddlers shouldn’t watch TV, an hour a day of television is a reasonable amount of time for children, aggressive boys are made more aggressive by violent video games, heavy media users get lower grades than kids who are light users and also report being less happy. Most of the questions that have been answered are - how to say this? - really, really obvious. One would be hard pressed to find a parent who thinks that infants should have the TV on at all times or that boys who are aggressive would benefit from a steady diet of violence. The tough questions, however, are not yet answered. What does this much media and digital exposure do to kids’ cognitive skills, to their social relationships, to their minds?  

While it’s tempting to spend the rest of my space here setting out guidelines for your kid’s use of media, the reality is that every child is different, uses media differently and probably is affected somewhat differently by media. We are waiting for the hard science to come in. In the meantime, it’s probably a good idea to set limits on your children’s media use. Kids whose parents have rules about media (i.e. - no TV in the bedroom, or no texting at the dinner table) spend less time with media than kids with more media-lenient parents. Violent video games, particularly “first person shooter” games, are known to raise levels of aggression in boys and are particularly counterproductive for boys who already show high levels of aggression. Cyberbulling, which has exploded in recent years, is a particularly dangerous form of bullying as the anonymity of the bully only makes the bullied child feel intensely helpless, in addition to feeling humiliated.

So, we should know what our kids are doing during the time they spend with the media and digital devices. We should set limits. No child needs 7 1/2 hrs of digital time. It takes away from all of the known tasks of childhood like exploring different interests, being physically active and starting the process of developing a sense of self separate from the family. One hardly needs this psychologist to tell you what almost every parent already knows in his or her gut. That kids’ reliance on digital communication is not likely to enhance social skills, the formation of a sense of self or the development of coping skills – all things that need real-life experience.

But there is something that I do want to tell you, and it’s not about whether your child should watch a half hour or an hour of television a day (my guess is it doesn’t make much difference). I want to call your attention to something called media literacy; that is the ability to analyze and understand the less obvious messages that are imbedded in the media. Regardless of what the future holds in terms of ever changing devices and platforms and games, our children will be exposed to and involved in digital forms of media (and most likely forms we haven’t even imagined yet) for the rest of their lives. And yet, they are, as many of us are as well, profoundly ignorant of the fact that behind every message that is presented to them there is a world of perspective and agenda that is carefully hidden from sight. Whose point of view are they hearing? Why are they taking that point of view? Who stands to profit from this? The prevailing culture of our country is often buried in the stories that are chosen to be shown. Thin women, muscular men, stories of wealth and status all serve various industries that have things to sell.

Not teaching media literacy is akin to Gutenberg creating his press and then not teaching anyone how to read. Make sure that you spend enough time with your children, watching the movies they watch, the games they play, the sites they surf, so that you are able to point out and discuss exactly what is being served up. Encourage your children to construct their own media. Kids love a camera. Allowing them to participate in the act of creating also allows them to see how much thought, attention, and perspective goes into creating media. We are all concerned about our kid’s education and rightly so. The kinds of creativity, critical thinking, and flexibility that the 21st century global economy is sure to demand are often in short supply. Media literacy classes, with their emphasis on questions rather than answers, provide a terrific, important and involving forum for our kids to learn how to think, how to analyze, how to deconstruct and how to make sure they’re not being sold a bill of goods. Understanding the agenda of the media is a critical first step in being a thoughtful consumer and, most importantly, an informed citizen.  

1 Kaiser Family Foundation, Daily Media Use Among Children and Teens Up Dramatically From Five Years Ago, Jan. 2010