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Media Is Everywhere: How Should Our Kids Consume It?

Shira Lee Katz, Director of Digital Media at Common Sense, discusses childhood in the age of the Internet.

By Michael Zakaras

Michael is a writer and strategist who specializes in social entrepreneurship and public policy. He has worked for Ashoka in the United States, Ireland, and Central Europe and has a Master's from the Harvard Kennedy School. He's currently based in New York City.

October 11, 2012

Shira Lee Katz is the Director of Digital Media at Common Sense Media, an organization that helps parents make smart decisions about what their children play and watch.  I sat down with her recently to discuss how media is changing the way kids grow up and what parents should know about it.

Michael Zakaras: What are some issues that parents and their children are coming across as kids spend more and more time on the Internet?

Shira Lee Katz: When we were creating our K-12 Digital Literacy and Citizenship curriculum, we did 20 focus groups across the country to understand what were some of the biggest ethical dilemmas for kids, teachers, and parents in the digital space. This on-the-ground research was very much in line with research from Howard Gardner's GoodPlay group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which is how they became our project partners. One of the biggest issues, of course, was how to build online community when people are anonymous and when the consequences of people's actions aren’t as clear as they are in the non-digital world. In cyberbullying situations, for example, it's really important for people who are bystanders – who are part of the picture and know what’s going on – to actually do something. To move from being a bystander to someone who actively takes a role is important, and again, it’s easier not to -- especially in the digital world where everyone is so anonymous.

MZ: In the digital world, there is just so much anonymity and there is this additional absence of being able to read emotions.

SLK: Absolutely. And the impact and the scale of these kinds of interactions is so huge. It's nearly impossible to keep information – from the mundane to the juicy – from spreading. It's a copy, cut, paste culture.

MZ: Kids are spending more time with media than with their schools or families, and so you talk about the need to have good behaviour modeled in some way if you’re spending a huge chunk of time in the digital world.

SLK:  When we look at media content, we ask ourselves: “Are we seeing people who are like who we want our kids to be in the future?” I think parents know how much media impacts their kids, so they really do want characters and role models that are living out lives that they hope their kids can learn from in some way. We honor the best role models in kids' media at our annual awards and call out "positive role models" in our ratings and reviews. Most importantly, we encourage parents to talk to their kids about what they're seeing and doing with media. That way, kids are able to put the images and content they see and absorb into context – hopefully one that includes their parents’ values, as well. These conversations are crucial, and a major step toward thinking critically about who we are and who we want to become.

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MZ: Positive role models are just one thing you look for when reviewing and ranking kids media. What else do you look for, especially when you’re thinking about building social and emotional skills?

SLK: In our learning ratings initiative we do look specifically at the social and emotional skills that are put forth in video games, websites, and apps. Digital media – games, apps, and websites – present some really great opportunities to build what we call “21st century skills” – critical thinking, cooperation, collaboration, and more. We definitely look for diverse characters and media that show different cultures. There are video games that only allow players to choose Caucasian avatars, for instance, and we want to change practices like this. In this vein, we look for media that help empower kids, encourage kids to be social, and encourage them to interact positively with others.

MZ: In addition to helping to parents choose what kinds of media their kids are seeing, do you do any thinking or talking about the question of whether kids should be consuming less of it?

SLK: We don’t recommend media at all for children under two, which is in line with what the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends. For younger kids, we really stress the importance of interacting with parents and caregivers foremost. For older kids who may be using more media, we recommend a lot of parent interaction too. So if kids are watching a movie, playing an app, on a website, etc., it's great when parents can be involved. Parents can be there to ask them questions, to help them pick the media, and to play with them. In general, we emphasize both quantity and quality when it comes to choosing media for kids. It’s important that parents think of both categories to ensure kids are interacting with the best possible media out there, for the right amount of time.