It’s no surprise that we saw a sharp increase in screen time consumption across all ages over the past two years. Working from home for most adults and virtual learning for most children meant an increase in screen time was a necessity. But as most children have gone back to school, their average screen time hours have not returned to pre-pandemic levels.
Melissa Henson from the Parents Television and Media Council finds this data concerning, and she joins us this week on Family Policy Matters to discuss why. She also shares some tips for how parents can protect their children from many online dangers.
Henson shares how the internet and electronics in general are designed to be addictive. “The constantly changing images, the constant stimulus—these are activating the parts of your brain that are seeking pleasure, and so it is highly addictive, and especially for young kids who have less ability to control.”
With children being on screens more and more, Henson warns that they will encounter a variety of inappropriate images and ideas that are saturating the Internet and streaming services in particular, including alcohol and drug use and pre-marital sex among teenagers.
Henson notes that many parents may think, “I’m a good parent, and my kid’s too smart for that,” but she warns these parents not to fool themselves; so long as their child has access to the Internet and television, parents need to be cautious.
“Keep the Internet connected devices and the TVs in centralized locations, so that you’re consuming media with your kids and you know what they’re consuming. Don’t just give them free, unfettered access to all this stuff out there, because what’s readily available to kids today is pretty atrocious.”
Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Melissa Henson discuss how parents can protect their children from the rapidly growing world of entertainment media.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. As technology becomes more and more a part of our everyday lives, younger generations are facing new challenges as a result, especially since they’re growing up with a declining culture of decency in entertainment media. This can affect mental health, social interactions, safety, and values of younger and older generations.
Well Melissa Henson of the Parents Television and Media Council is here to talk to us about this.
Melissa Henson, welcome back to Family Policy Matters.
MELISSA HENSON: Thank you for having me on.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Let’s start by talking about our media habits and how they have changed, especially in the last two years as we’ve moved through this pandemic.
MELISSA HENSON: Because so many kids were kept out of school, they were forced online in many cases in order to continue their education. A lot of the school districts moved to virtual learning. So kids have spent really an unprecedented amount of time with screens in the last two years. What is even more alarming is the fact that even though many school districts have reopened and kids are back in the classroom, those numbers—the screen time hours—have not yet returned to the pre-pandemic levels. So it looks like this shift, this change in how kids consume media and how much time they’re spending in front of screens— it looks like this is a trend that’s here to stay for the long run.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Right, and there is something addicting about being online, isn’t there?
MELISSA HENSON: Oh, absolutely, and that’s by design. In particular what we are seeing—and this is not something that is specifically cited in some of the public health advisories that have been issued recently, but I think it’s something that certainly needs to be looked at much more closely. So for example, the U.S. Surgeon General recently issued a public health advisory about the mental health crisis. With America’s young people, there has been a significant increase in anxiety and depression, mental health disorders, suicide attempts; I think there is a direct linkage. The Surgeon General doesn’t point to it, but if you look at the time kids are spending on social media, the amount of bullying, the amount of social pressure that they’re feeling on social media. And then we also have a recent research report from the Thorn Foundation that found that nearly one in seven children between the ages of 9 and 12 are sharing naked pictures of themselves. That’s almost triple the number from just a year earlier. So you cannot tell me that there isn’t a link between these two things. The fact that they feel pressured into exhibiting themselves, feel pressured into sharing naked pictures of themselves, feel pressured into sexualizing themselves, and the fact that so many kids are experiencing depression, anxiety, and suicide; you can’t tell me that there isn’t a link there.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: There’s not a lot of research on that yet, but perhaps it’s in progress?
MELISSA HENSON: Yeah, as far as I’m aware, there has not been a lot of research connecting those two things, but hopefully we’ll see some social science getting behind that soon and looking into it.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So are there different threats then for children versus teens versus young adults?
MELISSA HENSON: Yeah, I think absolutely. Look, even as adults, we are susceptible to pressures from the media that we consume, right? I mean, you’re watching a TV show and experiencing a little bit of envy about how nicely somebody else’s home is decorated or the stylish clothes that a character wears or the nice haircut—none of us are immune to that. But the pressures on teens and children in particular, I think, are much, much higher. In fact, one research has called television a “sexual super peer” because children look at what they see on screen and they accept it as reality. Hopefully, as you get older, you develop a little bit more discernment and you can say, “Okay, well this is exaggerated,” or “This is fiction, this isn’t really representative.” But as a teen, they’re very easily convinced that what they’re seeing on screen is reality and it’s true for most teens.
So if they see high levels of sexual activity among teenage characters on television, they are going to assume that that’s realistic and that that’s what’s expected of them. So they do feel tremendous pressure to engage in sexual behavior at a younger age and more advanced sexual behaviors at a younger age. And that’s true also for other kinds of behavior. That’s why you no longer see smoking depicted on TV anymore, right? Because somebody recognized that if kids are seeing people smoke on screen, they’re more likely to start smoking. If kids see teenagers drinking alcohol or using drugs, I think there’s a very good possibility—a probability—that they’re going to think that this kind of recreational drug and alcohol use is normal and acceptable.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: You mentioned older people and how we should have more discernment—and sometimes I wonder—but especially people that have children and young people in their homes, right? I mean, they really need to understand that what they’re laughing at, what they’re allowing to be shown in their homes, could be having more of an impact even than they might realize.
MELISSA HENSON: Yeah. I think there is a tendency for a lot of us as parents to think, “Oh, my kid’s too smart to be fooled by that,” or “My kid’s too smart to engage in this kind of stupid behavior or reckless or dangerous behavior. It’s a problem for the kid down the street, but it’s not a problem for my child because I’m a good parent, and my kid’s too smart for that.” And I think a lot of us sort of fool ourselves in that, because what teens are looking for primarily is acceptance. And they feel like TV is giving them an insight into how to be accepted because the kids on TV are attractive, they’re popular, they’re good-looking, and this is the model I need to follow in order to be like them.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So what kind of policing? Are we seeing any of that anymore these days on the entertainment industry?
MELISSA HENSON: Yeah, I mean, obviously Parents Television and Media Council is still there. We’re trying to hold this industry accountable, but so much has changed very rapidly. Over the two years of the pandemic, we saw the rate of cord cutting—that is people cutting their cable subscriptions and switching either largely or exclusively to streaming services—that accelerated tremendously during the pandemic. So, we now have more people consuming media over streaming platforms, where there really is no regulatory authority. Even on cable, which was not under FCC jurisdiction, you had at least advertisers sort of drawing the line in the sand saying, “We’re just not comfortable paying for content that is this explicit or that violent.” But that’s not true on streaming platforms, and like I said, there’s really no regulatory authority. So, you will find content on Netflix today that rivals stuff that used to be exclusively available after midnight on HBO and Showtime and Cinemax. I mean really we’re talking about pornographic content that is very, very easy for kids to access on these streaming platforms.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: You talked about the sharing of nude pictures. What about sexual abuse? Do you think this could be having an effect on that?
MELISSA HENSON: Yeah, absolutely, and I don’t have the statistics in front of me at the moment, but I know that there have been studies because kids who are already at risk or in dangerous environments, the lockdowns forced them in many cases to be stuck at home with their abusers. So, there are statistics that indicate sexual abuse rates of children, teens is also on the rise.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So what can we do? Of course, the North Carolina Family Policy Council is a statewide public policy advocacy organization. So is this mostly something that needs to happen on the federal level? Are there things that the state legislature or parents policy wise can do?
MELISSA HENSON: Well, I would invite your listeners to visit our website, parentstv.org, for the Parents Television and Media Council to get links to petitions, resources, things that we are doing to try to hold these industries accountable. The main thing that we are actively pursuing at the moment is the way sexualized depictions of the children and teens have been normalized, especially on streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu and HBO. There are a lot of programs that feature high school aged characters where there is sexually graphic or explicit content, and that should not be permissible, especially when you’re talking about underaged characters. Even if the actors or actresses portraying them are over 18, to normalize this with characters who are supposed to be high school aged or even middle school aged, I think is hugely problematic. So we are reaching out to the Department of Justice, the FBI, state attorneys general, to see if there is either any existing law that could be used to prosecute those that are sexualizing kids in this troubling way, or if there’s any other legal recourse that we might pursue.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: What else are you guys doing? What other thing is on your agenda these days?
MELISSA HENSON: Another thing that we have been trying to push for is more consistent, uniformed ratings, so that parents are better informed about the content. I think it’s a significant problem, especially in the streaming universe, that there is no universal standard, especially with the parental controls. Every streaming platform sort of has its own rating system and its own approach to parental controls, and so a lot of parents are sort of left high and dry without really knowing what’s out there. I mean, we’re talking about at the push of a button, you have access to literally thousands of titles and no parent could possibly be expected to be an expert on everything that’s available on all of these streaming platforms at all times. So they really need to have help in the form of better parental controls and more standard and consistent ratings so that they can block and filter content that they don’t want coming into their homes.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So that’s on the public policy level. What can we as parents, grandparents, what can we do to help along these lines?
MELISSA HENSON: I would say that the most important thing is to lock down the devices, especially the internet enabled devices. Get them out of the kids’ rooms; do not let them have their laptop computers in their rooms; do not let them bring their cell phones into their rooms. You need to really also stay on top of which mobile apps they’re putting on their cell phones and delay as long as possible, I would say, allowing your children to have a smartphone. I recognize when I was in a high school, my mom would send me to school with a quarter so I could make a call in case of an emergency. You can’t find pay phones in schools these days, so I recognize that need to be able to communicate with your child and reach your child in an emergency or your child be able to reach you.
But there are still flip phones available; you don’t have to have a smartphone. You don’t have to have wifi enabled devices. You don’t need to have a phone that will allow your kids to download the Netflix app or an HBO app so they can stream this content outside of your home. So really keep the internet connected devices and the TVs in centralized locations, so that you’re consuming media with your kids, you know what they’re consuming, and don’t just give them sort of free, unfettered access to all this stuff out there, because what’s available to kids, what’s readily available to kids today is pretty atrocious.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So we are just about out of time for this week, but before we go, how can our listeners—you mentioned your website—but what are some other ways that we can keep up with the good work that you’re doing?
MELISSA HENSON: You can sign up on our website, parentstv.org, to receive our weekly emails where we have either ways for you to take action or news updates, what we’re working on. You can also find us on social media, just look for the Parents Television and Media Council official page.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Okay. Melissa Henson of the Parents Television and Media Council, thank you so much for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.
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