Can I protect my kids’ media use at school? On the bus?

Michael Rich, MD, MPH

Michael Rich, MD, MPH, is Children’s Hospital Boston’s media expert and director of Children’s Center on Media and Child Health. Take a look at his blog archive or follow him on Twitter @CMCH_Boston

Q: How do I protect my children against what I consider to be harmful media when they are at school or on the bus? Older boys are sharing content that we disapprove of (like Star Wars, Spongebob, etc.) with my 6 year old on their MP3 and portable video players. As you know, these devices are capable of downloading very ugly content—including pornography and sadistic M-rated video games—even on the way to class. No one seems to care about this. What should I do?

– Concerned About School Commutes in Lincoln, NE

A: Dear Concerned:

If this is a concern to you, it’s likely that lots of other families feel similarly helpless. Even if these older boys aren’t friends with your child, I would start by asking your child’s friends’ parents about their feelings about media use on the way to school, whether this problem is arising for them, and how they’re attempting to curtail their kids’ exposure to violent or sexual content. This can help you get a sense of the scale of this issue.

If you know which kids are responsible and are able to contact their families, ask what kind of personal media devices their kids carry and how they regulate what goes on those devices. It’s possible that they don’t know what their kids have downloaded and are sharing with younger kids and that they would be willing to intervene. They may even be willing to keep an ongoing dialog with you about how your kids interact with each other.

If you aren’t able to contact those families or if they are unresponsive to your concerns, consider talking with the school about their policies regarding media usage both in and out of the classroom. What is their policy about personal media on buses? In the hallway? How is it enforced? The conversation about any kind of in-school media use can be tricky, as many districts have signed contracts with companies that provide entertainment and education during and on the way to class. Channel One News, for example, delivers 12 minutes of news—and commercials—to about six million teens in 8,000 middle and high schools daily. Similarly, Bus Radio was a company that played commercial radio broadcasts on the way to school—until parent activists helped shut it down, furious that their children were being marketed to in such a captive, targeted way. If you’re not satisfied with your child’s school’s media policies as they apply to in-class or out-of-class media use, be vocal about it: As the Bus Radio scenario shows us, parents like you can advocate for kids’ media health and safety—and affect positive change.

Finally, and most importantly, don’t leave this issue to be regulated by the bus driver, the other riders, or the school. Make sure that your child, him or herself, is aware of technologies out there and conscious that there can be material on them that might disturb him (not just that “he shouldn’t see it”). Help your son learn to navigate exposure to media that makes him uncomfortable or confused—whether by talking about it with you, by not looking at what other children show him, or by sharing something else when presented with something he doesn’t want to see. Doing this now can empower him to make a lifetime of smart media decisions for himself.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,

The Mediatrician®