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What we learned in a few hours with Senator Jay Rockefeller

Today we spent a few hours as part of  “the audience” at a roundtable discussion led by our state senator, Jay Rockefeller.  He was hosting the event to share conversation and ideas regarding violent media content and how if affects our children and their behavior.  To be honest, prior to today I had no strong feelings towards this specific topic (television and children in general is one of my peeves as a therapist and a parent. More HERE).  I am the mother to two girls who only play dance games or sing their favorite Taylor Swift songs using our family’s Wii when there are large groups of children in our home.  They do not have cell phones and we heavily screen and monitor what they are exposed to through television, movies, and the Internet. At 7 & 8 years of age, they don’t yet protest these rules. I know the time is coming though, and I’ve read enough to know that I need to be prepared, so as a parent, the topic interested me.  But as an early intervention therapist working with families on a daily basis and as a business owner/author with a passion for empowering, educating, and strengthening families, I was VERY interested in this topic.

To be completely honest, I was expecting a politically charged experience where as members of the audience we listened to what Senator Rockefeller was planning to do to “fix this.”  I was pleasantly surprised.  What I witnessed today was someone who was willing to LISTEN more than talk and someone who was willing to QUESTION rather than carefully answer questions. This impressed me. The roundtable (which was actually square!) consisted of an interesting mix of individuals including parents, teens, pediatricians, a Psychologist, a teacher, and representatives from The Entertainment Ratings Safety Board (the agency that rates video games), and one from Common Sense Media.  Each person had the opportunity to weigh in. While this is a topic that I personally have spent a good amount of time reading about, I learned a lot today. Here are the most important things I learned.

1.    Research in this area is not conclusive.

Research is clear that the frontal lobe (or decision making center) of the brain is not fully developed until > 21 years of age, making risk taking behavior more common in teens.  There is a great deal of research on the effect of violent media on behavior, but some researchers with similar methods have come up with different results. Apparently, this is a common challenge in social science research.  Many teachers, parents, and professionals may inherently “know” what they are seeing and experiencing with children, but controlling all the variables (experience, home life, genetics etc.) is very difficult.

2.    Changing the law in terms of media limits is not an easy task.

In order to protect our 1st amendment rights, the Supreme Court requires proof CAUSAL evidence.  This means that there must be unbiased and conclusive research that states there is a DIRECT cause between media violence and violent behavior.  As stated above, this is no easy task; however there is currently a request for research from the National Academy of Science (a non partisan group) to determine if a causal link exists.

 3.    Parental involvement is key.

There was agreement among the group that the government can never take the place of or have the influence that a parent can have with a child.  However, the reality that many families are facing is exhaustion from working multiple jobs, combined with lightening speed technological advancement, of which their children often far excel over the parent themselves. The result is overwhelmed and impatient parents that often “give up” or “give in.” One extremely well spoken teen stated it best by saying that if parents are not directly and actively involved in their children’s lives related to this topic, then the media BECOMES the parent – educating the child on the subject and WRITING THE SOCIAL SCRIPT for the child based on what the media says is “ok.” (This stuck with me and I underlined it many times!)

4.    Frogger is no longer king.

Depending on what age you are, you may remember early video games. If not, google “frogger” or “hangman.” They consisted of simple graphics that barely made shapes or letters that did not have right angles. They were simple, basic, non violent (unless you consider a frog being smashed by heavy traffic violent), but at the time they were fascinating. Today’s games are MULTI SENSORY.  And while the technology of what is available continues to fascinate, it clearly blurs the line between reality vs. fantasy.  While a healthy, mature adult may be able to safely discern this difference, there are populations of people (likely a combination or nature and nurture) that not only find comfort in the escape of what is offered, but can also turn that virtual world into a scary reality for those in their communities.  Also, children under the age of 7, have a harder time understanding reality vs. fantasy, making exposure to violent media potentially very dangerous.

 

 5.    Reaching out to different children may require non-traditional methods.

Just as teens are desensitized to what they see in violent media, they may become desensitized to adults talking about it. A high school theatre teacher from Jefferson County (WV) has apparently made big changes in his community by directing a play called Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom, which focuses on the blur of fantasy vs. reality and how that can affect violent teen behavior.  Apparently, methods like this play are making big changes in bringing the risks to the conversation table for parents and teens.  The psychologist present for the discussion talked about how violent video game dictates a false sense of reality for elementary aged students who often want a quick and violent solution (like in video games) when conflict arises. She pointed out that one teacher working with troubled 5th graders with this mentality stated, “in real life if someone blows your head off, it’s over. There’s no other turns.”

 6.    Professionals have an important role but it’s a role that is not new news to them.

Pediatricians in attendance were well versed on how violent media and “screen time” in general affects emotional development but also general health. One stated that this may be “new” or a “hot topic” to the political climate, but that pediatricians have known his since the 1950’s and that frankly the time to act is now. Another stated she has patients that spend over 6 hours a day in front of screens and that when she approaches families with the angle that this is not a political control issue but a HEALTH issue, she often sees positive change.  She speaks to parents about how overuse of screens in daily life depletes opportunity for balanced development (artistic, athletic etc.) and interrupts normal sleep routines, as well as affecting obesity rates and health concerns related to obesity.

7.    There are helpful resources that are unknown to many parents.

There are organizations already in place that want to help parents. Common Sense Media offers many resources to break down age recommendations and type of content (language, sexual messages, violence) for multiple media sources for parents and schools.  There are parental controls available (although some are tricky to navigate) that let you set strict limits and even get feedback via email if a child is venturing toward an “off limits” area. Randy Walker from the Entertainment Safety Ratings Board stated that 9 out of 10 parents are involved in video game purchase decisions and that the video game industry reports an 87% decline rate if an underage child tries to buy an M rated game.   These are steps in a positive direction.

 8.    While there are some differing opinions, everyone at the table agreed on this.

However it ends up looking, anyone involved in this topic needs to help give parents a chance to make a difference in protecting their children. There are some programs in place to help, but it is BEST for children to learn all of this from their parents.  As Sen. Rockefeller stated, that is an “easy thing to say” but “hard to do.” He also said, “this keeps parents awake at night. It keeps me awake..Thinking about my grandchildren.”  Senator or school teacher…therapists or parent, I think we can all agree that we want the best for our children and being open to the conversation and educating ourselves is often the best first step.

 

Here’s what I want to add to the conversation…. (I had a hard time not waving my hand in the air in true nerd-like fashion on this one).

9. Anytime a child is in front of a screen is time they are NOT PLAYING and healthy development at any age occurs in some degree through PLAY.

Technology play and viewing can enhance our learning but cannot REPLACE developmental play. Benefits of language development, cognitive reasoning, social skills (in particular conflict resolution), and maintaining a healthy mind and body are gained through play.  There are REAL CONSEQUENCES to the gradual replacement of traditional play for our children and our society.

 

10. Development Matters

We based 1-2-3 Just Play With Me on this concept. Children enjoy and learn through activities that are appropriate and relevant to their current stage of development. The same holds true for media exposure. Friday night is family movie night in our house. We have used Common Sense Media as a guide to determine if what we are viewing is developmentally appropriate for our children for years. We do this because we care and it is important (not because we love watching Free Willy and Home Alone all the time).  Just because a child doesn’t cry or show outward signs of fear to violent content, does not mean that what is being presented is not affecting that child in a negative way.  Keep in mind what that wise teen said. Who is dictating your child’s norm? Writing his or her social script? Let it be you and not a violent game or movie! There are REAL consequences to violent behavior. Are we discussing the emotional, legal, and physical consequences with our children?

After the many mass shooting tragedies our nation faced and grieved together, there was much debate over firearms, but also heavy conversation about how it was “much more” than guns. Wherever you stand on either issue, it is easy to see that at the minimum there is a potential role that violent media may play on our children.  So whether you want to control what your child views all on your own, or you feel you’d like the government help you do that – let it start in some way, in some form with you and your child.. in your home…today…no matter how young they are.

Lacy & Nicole (and Nicole’s family) get a chance to speak to Senator Rockefeller after the roundtable discussion