Parents need to keep on top of their kids media use. CNS photo/Lucy Nicholson, Reuters

Sr. Helena Burns: It’s your duty to parent media for kids

  • November 24, 2021

With all that today’s parents have to do, how is it possible to go about the mammoth task of parenting the media?

As someone who is a spiritual mother — I commiserate with you! But, I am only a spiritual mother and don’t have to attend to all the physical and other needs of my spiritual children. On top of that, I am a “media nun” with a degree in Media Literacy Education. You, Mom and Pop, probably have degrees in Business Administration and Electrical Engineering.

However. What I am about to tell you will both let you off the hook and put you back on the hook with regard to one of the most important gifts you could ever give your children: to parent the media for them and with them. Not only is it a gift, it’s a parental duty — and today, a primary parental duty.

How and why am I making the case for putting parenting the media above almost all one’s other mothering and fathering tasks? Because, as you know, children (and adults) are spending more and more time each day with screens and media “consumption.”

Certainly, the stats are skewed towards an increase in media use due to pandemic lockdowns and remote working and schooling. However, these new emergency measures have been rather permanently embraced and, according to Canada’s Internet Factbook 2020, 54 per cent of Canadians feel they’ve achieved a better work-life balance by working from home. Thirty-three per cent say they spend three-four hours per day online, 15 per cent spend more than eight hours online. (Of course, it has also been discovered in other studies that we often underestimate the amount of time we spend with screens!) Children and youth aren’t generally polled, but we know their numbers are similar to those of adults, often surpassing adult stats.

Parenting occupations that involve play dates, the orthodontist, school, sports, guitar lessons, Chinese lessons, learning the value of managing money, are all important for our young folk, but — they are only for this life. Parenting the media is for eternity.

How’s that, you say? Values and anti-values, ideas, philosophies, images, reasonings and arguments, lifestyles, virtues and vices, enticements, addictions, seductions, information and entertainment, inspiration and degradation — all come through the media directly into young minds and hearts. Who is showing them how to discern all of this?

Experts say that parents really do know how to talk about media with their teens and need not be intimidated by sullenness, monosyllabic rejoinders and the razzle-dazzle of fancy tech. Just do what you did when you read a book to them when they were wee — but up your game, of course: “What’s going on in this story? What do you think about what that character did? What would you do? Do you really think that’s a good idea? Why? Have you considered this consequence?”

Asking questions is the “Socratic method,” and it can be more effective for getting at answers, rather than simply spouting them forth. When young people can go through the process of thinking things out for themselves (with some input), they own the convictions they come to personally.

Parental units! Rely on your God-given parenting instincts and the Sacrament of Matrimony to do the right thing by your offspring. Have media guidelines at home — any guidelines! Make it up as you go along, like you do with everything else in parenting. Every family has unique rules anyway. When I used to tell my Dad: “But everybody’s doing it!” — he would reply: “We are not everybody.”

My mother wasn’t even able to articulate how she felt about objectionable TV when I was young, but I’ll never forget her bothering to get up off the couch (in a bygone era before remotes!) and using pliers on our busted dial to snap it to another channel (yeah, I’m that old).

My message to parents is this: Give yourself a break by flipping the script! Those parenting activities that involve this life only? Put them second and put parenting the media first! If Junior has to miss hockey practice because of some critical drama involving his media use, so be it. Young people don’t learn by what we say is of value, but what we do that shows what’s of value.

(Sr. Helena Raphael Burns, fsp, is a Daughter of St. Paul. She holds a Masters in Media Literacy Education and studied screenwriting at UCLA.  Twitter: @srhelenaburns)

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