Stories about: Ask the Mediatrician

Ask the Mediatrician: Could my son be too dependent on YouNow and Skype after moving?

Michael RichQ: Our family moved recently from the U.S. to Mexico for my husband’s job, and while most things have been transitioning smoothly, I am concerned that my 14-year-old son is spending too much time with screens and not enough time making friends. Since moving, he spends a lot of time Skyping or playing video games with his friends back in the United States. Last week, I even found out that he is using YouNow to stay connected with friends all the time…even when he is sleeping! I know this move has been tough, and I want to support his transition, but I’m concerned that if he continues to spend all of his time online with his old friends, his social life here will be non-existent. Any help you can offer me will be appreciated—thanks!

~ Figuring out friends, Mexico

A: Dear Figuring,

It is normal for your son to be struggling with the move and for him to want to stay connected to his friends back in the U.S. Moving to a new community can be an especially difficult transition for teenagers, who are figuring out who they are as individuals (separate from their parents) and rely heavily on peer relationships in that process. Today’s technology can help your son stay connected with those important people who are far away, and used mindfully, it can be helpful in his transition.

That said, if your son actually stays connected nearly 24/7 using YouNow, Skype and video games with his old friends, he may end up spending much of his time trying to copy his former life instead of living his current one. As wonderful as these technologies can be for relaying images and sounds of people and places we love, they are still only images and sounds—they can never be as interesting, engaging, challenging and sustaining as face-to-face interactions. But they do feel safe, and they often require less energy and vulnerability than going out and making new friends.

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How can I find quality TV shows for my 7-year-old granddaughter?

Michael RichQ: My daughter just posted a plea on her Facebook wall asking for help finding quality TV shows for elementary-age girls (my granddaughter is 7). I know she has been frustrated by the shows her daughter currently watches, as she believes the female characters act cruelly to each other, and she’s concerned about how this kind of messaging affects her daughter. I think she is looking for both show recommendations and if there is a way that she, and other parents like her, can influence what is presented on TV.

~ iGranny, USA

A: Dear iGranny,

Your daughter’s question is one with which many parents struggle when searching for developmentally optimal content that features positive, inspiring role models with whom their children can relate. The issue becomes even deeper when specifically looking for positive portrayals of women and girls in children’s media, as female characters have historically been underplayed or portrayed as weak, sexualized or mean-spiritedly competitive with other female characters. Research has repeatedly shown that these portrayals of female characters can negatively influence how young girls view their bodies and gender roles, yet even today, these negative stereotypes can be found in many movies and TV shows.

You and your daughter are not alone in wanting to guide your granddaughter toward media that will be enlightening, empowering and uplifting for her. Although it may seem daunting, you have come to the right place – there are many practical steps you can take when seeking and selecting media for your granddaughter:

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Ask the Mediatrician: How does social media affect body image?

Michael RichQ: I am a 7th grader working on an independent research project about whether using social media can be addictive and how using social media affects adolescent girls’ body image. What does the scientific research show? And how can I learn more about this?

~ Scrutinizing Social Media, Wellesley, MA

Dear Scrutinizing,

As a seventh grader, this is an important topic for you to research and to teach your friends about, since you are turning 13, the age at which you are legally able to be using social media. First, let’s address whether social media are “addictive”. We need to be careful about using stigmatizing terms such as “addiction” when discussing behaviors, such as using social media, as they are not exactly the same as addictions to substances, such as alcohol or drugs. While there are social media behaviors that can be compulsive and excessive, such as constantly checking updates, counting “likes” or changing what you have posted, even late into the night, they are qualitatively different. Physical changes occur in the body of a heroin or alcohol addict which cause them to need more of the substance all the time to feel okay and which cause them to be really sick and need medical intervention when they cannot get heroin or alcohol. The psychological need to be on social media more and more, and the anxiety that may occur when not online, are not physical and can be overcome without medical care. Nevertheless, there are many young people who have an attachment to their online lives, whether it be to social media or gaming, that is unhealthy and can cause them significant problems with school performance, social life, and even physical health. They need help to regain balance in their lives, but I am concerned that using the negative term “addiction”, will only lead to denial (most addicts don’t think they have a problem) and not seeking the care and support that they need.

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Are websites like “Animal Jam” appropriate for tweens and young children?

Michael RichQ: Is Animal Jam an appropriate website for tweens and children as young as 5-year-olds? As a parent and librarian, I am concerned by a number of Animal Jam’s features, such as pushing players to purchase items within the website, and am skeptical as to the site’s “educational” value, even though it is associated with National Geographic. Is it ok for kids to be on the site?

– Jammed Online, USA

A: Dear Jammed,

Animal Jam is just one of many kid-oriented websites that present themselves as both free and educational, largely so that parents will allow their children to use them. Their association with a larger, well-known educational entity, such as National Geographic, is typical of these sites. They often purchase a sponsorship from a reputable, often non-profit institution for added credibility—even though they are not, in fact, part of that larger institution.

You are correct in noting that sites like these require some media literacy skills to fully understand how they work. These types of websites are called “freemium” sites, which means that while entry is free, you need to pay for “premium service” or additional features, as you and your children discovered with Animal Jam. Freemium sites for kids are designed to engage their imagination and desire for more. This tactic is common in the marketing world and is appropriately called the “nag factor” where a child nags a parent to buy a product or service—or, in this case, premium features.

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