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Dr. Richard Gallagher on How to Be a Media Savvy Parent

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How much media is too much? The NYU Child Study Center's second in its series of parenting talks at New York-area schools addressed concerns surrounding children's increasing exposure to social networking sites, movies, TV, video games and more. The talks are given by the CSC's Dr. Richard Gallagher, and this one was held at P.S. 63 on the Upper West side of Manhattan, on November 5, 2010.

You can see a video of Dr. Gallagher's presentation above. Below is an edited transcript of the question and answer portion of his talk with parents who were in attendance.

Question: Can you give some general guidelines to parents on how to monitor what children are exposed to in the media?

Dr. Gallagher: As a consumer yourself, it is important to be aware of what is available. I do think you can anticipate certain concerns. Boys, for instance, generally like action and are stimulated by violence. This is a stereotype, and I know this is not true for everyone, but they like to think of themselves as being powerful and not wimpy. You can anticipate that boys, even at young ages, will be interested in really aggressive stuff.

You can say to your child, it's okay to be interested in some of this stuff, but not too much. Think about it like a balanced diet. You let your kids have some junk food once in a while. You let them have dessert. Think about what your kids are allowed to watch in a similar way. In small doses, it is okay.

With boys, you should also let them know what you think about these violent games or shows. You can tell your child, you can play these games, but recognize you are not going to play them a lot. I also want you to know that these games are not true. They are just fantasy. I don't want you to think that what these games portray is appropriate behavior.

Girls—again, stereotypes—are going to be invested in relationships, and how relationships are presented. Girls are going to pick up on negative ways that people treat one another, and ways people exclude one another. Girls are going to pay attention to social relationships. They may tell one another: you are not cool because of … your clothes, the toys you play with, who your friends are…. We are not going to let you be our friend because of … similar actions.

Boys, after the age of 10, might find out about things that are pornographic. You can anticipate this and say to your child, you might stumble across this or your friends might tell you about this. I want you to recognize that this is not what I think is appropriate. It is important to tell your child, take what you see with a grain of salt. You are an intelligent child, you have a good upbringing, take what you see and really think before you say it is a good thing.

Q: You've talked a lot about the negative effects of video games. Are there any studies that show there are positive effects?

Dr. G: Video games do improve children's eye-hand coordination, and attention to details can often increase. Certain video games also seem to result in some improved problem solving, for example adventure games. Kids can be involved with these games, and even some violent games, but they need to be reminded that these games are not real.

boy watching violent cartoon

Q: If you have a younger-elementary age boy who wants to play video games, would you recommend letting him play a limited amount, or would there be any benefit to postponing play until he is older? In which case, how do you deal with peer pressure?

Dr. G: There will be a lot of peer pressure around all these issues. There will be one kid in the group who sets the standard. The other 15 kids will say, but so and so's mother lets him play this, or this kid gets to stay up until this hour, or this kid gets to see R rated movies. All 15 kids will use the same kid as the example. Sometimes they will use your kid, even if it's not true. The rumors kids use about what other kids are allowed to do are sometimes just that, rumors. But there is often a family on the edge that is pushing the envelope.

It's important for you to stand up to peer pressure and suggest your child do the same. Say to your child, I know it doesn't feel great when people say you aren't cool because you are not engaging in these behaviors. Acknowledge that it's hard, but that you can't always just go along with the other kids. It is important to start early.

Q: How concerned should parents be about the influence of foul language in music? Isn't there concern about volume, and the use of earbuds?

Dr. G: Well I am a psychologist, so I am not an expert on volume and earbuds. I do know that you have to be concerned about volume because there is indication that kids can get long-term damage by listening to things too loudly.

Music will have an influence on the language that kids use. It is not clear that music actually changes kids' behaviors, but if music encourages a certain set of behaviors, then children's attitudes about those behaviors may become more positive.

Q: As a parent I hold a pretty strict line on cell phone and computer use. But I find parents getting a lot of pressure from other parents, such as, well we allow so and so to have a Facebook account. When one of my children was in seventh grade, everyone had to have a Facebook account or they were bullied.

Dr. G: There is peer pressure at all levels, on the children and on the parents as well. It is important to decide how you are going to justify your decisions and stand up to it. A lot of times the peer pressure comes up from the children to the parents and the parents are not able to withstand it. You should be able to say, well, I might be viewed as a little odd, and I can tolerate that. Doing things differently than other people always presents a challenge.

Q: I have my children's Facebook user names and passwords, and I want to be able to read their e-mails and texts, but this makes my kids very angry. They want their privacy. What is the best way for parents to tell their children that parents will be staying involved and monitoring cell phone and computer use?

Dr. G: I am going to set some strict standards. For children under 15 with a Facebook account, I would tell them I need your password. I am going to look at your account. I am not going to look at conversations, but I am going to see who you are interacting with and I might check out themes every once in awhile in case they become inappropriate.

I personally feel it's silly that Facebook lets kids under 12 have an account. When we talk about kids in fourth and fifth grade, and even sixth grade, it's important to know the amount of teasing that occurs in sixth grade is the highest in all of childhood. Kids in fourth and fifth grade don't have the capacity to handle gossip, to hold back from joining in with the group. Think about whether these kids have the capacity to stop themselves from saying bad things about other children. Think about a sixth grader and how difficult it is to stand up against the peer group and say, I really don't think you should be saying all these bad things about this other kid. This is really, really difficult for children to do.

Facebook and other social networking sites have psychological components that I don't think kids this age can handle. You could say, I am sorry we don't let you drive a car yet, I don't think you should have access to these sites yet, either. Tell your kids I am going to have parental monitoring devices, and I am going to monitor your texting and your Facebook account. I am going to know who your friends are.

Q: My daughter tells me that she prefers to have music when she is studying. Since I am not inside her head, I feel uncomfortable deciding if it is helpful or not helpful for her.

Dr. G: Information suggests that for some kids who have a little bit of trouble with their attention, listening to music actually helps them study. It is music that they choose and it can have lyrics or not.

You can also create an individual test of this with your child. Keep track of your child's grades, and check after awhile to see how school is going. Different people may or may not benefit from listening to music while studying.

On the other hand, there is no such thing as multi-tasking. You might be able to walk while watching television, and do multiple things in that sense, but in regard to your attention, and this is certainly true for kids, there is no such thing as the capacity to carry on a conversation on instant messaging (IM) or texting and pay attention to your homework. You shift your attention. Multi-tasking is a fallacy. When you get involved in multi-tasking, performance on all the things you are doing deteriorates.

Q: What I am seeing with the kids I work with is that there is such an onslaught of auditory and visual stimuli in the media that these children expect regular human interaction to be just as fast paced and stimulating, and when it's not I see problems with patience and impulsivity. If an adult is not able to grab their attention the way the media does, the child's attention is immediately drifting off.

Dr. G: This problem can be monitored by setting limits on the amount of time children are exposed to flashy media, and making sure they are involved in other activities, such as having conversations. There has been talk about this problem since "Sesame Street" first came out. "Sesame Street" has short intervals. It is helpful in regard to kids learning about letters, but some kids who were exposed to a large amount of "Sesame Street" went to school and found school quite boring. These kids became cynical and bored in first grade.

Q: What do you think about smart boards being introduced into the classroom?

Dr. G: Of these types of learning devices, the most effective are those that employ interaction. Kids don't learn well passively. When children are very young it is best if they have someone there to help them decipher what they are seeing. The best types of learning programs engage children, like when Dora [the Explorer] asks the audience what kind of animal this is and expects children to answer. Those types of shows are better than ones where children just sit. When children just sit they don't learn very much. If children are going to be watching shows and videos, have them watch interactive ones, and if possible, watch with them. Smart boards are usually used by teachers to interact with children and should be a useful tool in learning.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about how parents should give consequences when rules are broken? For example, when you are trying to limit video game usage and your child will not listen or sneaks videogames? My child is eight.

Dr. G: You restrict things for a certain period of time. Tell your child, I trusted you to use whatever device it was for an agreed amount of time, and I see that you snuck around our agreement. That means you are not allowed to use whatever it was for the rest of the day. You want to make reasonable consequences but also ones that fit the crime.

The other part about consequences is that you want kids to feel like there is a "parole," so to speak. I have done parent talks for older kids, where the parent says their kid did something in October and the kid was grounded till the end of the school year. There is no way that kid is going to be motivated to improve his behavior. The child might as well give up, and may think that from now on his or her behavior doesn't matter.

It is best to give kids another chance after a short period of time. For an eight year old, for example, take away the game for half the day. That is something a child can tolerate and will learn from. If the child gives up, he or she will think to him orherself, well I am never going to get this back, so why should I behave or follow the rules.

Q: At the bus stop I saw a young girl being approached by an older guy. He struck up a conversation with her and tried to get her Facebook account. The girl seemed very uncomfortable, and finally she said, well my mom gets mad when I give too many people my account. I noticed it was like she had an out. What do you think about this?

Dr. G: Thank you, that's very helpful. That is something we often tell kids; that they can blame their parents. When kids are interacting with one another and they are feeling peer pressure, if they blame their parents, it gives them a handy excuse. Kids can say, it's not me but my mom is so strict, my parents watch every move I make, I would get in huge trouble if I did this. This is a good defense that helps kids feel more comfortable telling friends they won't do something. It is also very useful in inappropriate interactions such as the one you describe. No child should give out identifying or contact information to a stranger.

This series of six parenting talks by Dr. Richard Gallagher is possible thanks to the generosity of Sarah and David Fiszel who, through their gift, wanted to bring valuable parenting advice from Dr. Gallagher and the NYU Child Study Center to a broader audience.

The Fiszels' support enables these talks to reach hundreds of parents who attend the live presentations at area schools. Their donation has also made it possible to feature video of each talk on the CSC's Web site, www.aboutourkids.org, which will help us to reach thousands more parents and caregivers across the country.

Dr. Gallagher is an associate professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU and director of special projects at the Child Study Center's Institute for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity and Behavior Disorders. He is an expert in the treatment of selective mutism as well as organizational skills deficits.