A Mindful Media Diet for the Family
Recently, a Welsh primary school director discovered students as young as six re-enacting the violent sex scenes from Grand Theft Auto (GTA) on the playground, a trend he reported in a letter of warning to parents. A Massachusetts teen saw the little brothers of his friends start to play the adult-rated, crime-enacting video game and decided to volunteer for the local social services committee formed after the Newtown, Conn. school shootings. Common Sense Media ranks Grand Theft Auto among the most violent games and “not for kids,” but GTA-5 was the top-seller in 2013, surpassing the billion-dollar revenue mark three days after its release.
Parents concerned about their child’s media diet face nearly insurmountable challenges to establishing healthy choices across today’s media platforms. The proliferating media sources and content wildly outpace research into their impact, leaving relational and physical aggression a worrisome and growing problem—especially for children. "One key study of certain educational videos, for three to five year olds, found increased relational aggression among the children after viewing. Specifically, only negative content in the first half of the stories matched the children's attention span; the moral came too late for them to notice it."
Violence appears in roughly 90 percent of movies, 68 percent of video games and 60 percent of TV shows, according to Caroline Knorr, the parenting editor at Common Sense Media. American children absorb it during their average six to seven hours of daily screen time and imitate it in play, especially when good guys triumph over bad guys. While multiple risk factors contribute to all harmful behavior, violent media viewing and gaming commonly turn up in the mix.
More than 100 years ago, physician and educator Maria Montessori recognized that imitation and repetition form the basis of children’s learning. What children repeatedly witness and experience becomes the infrastructure of reasoning and creativity for the abstract concept learning that comes next. Despite the odds, there are ways to approach children’s media consumption that provide healthful development and enjoyment.
The renowned Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh teaches “a diet for a mindful society” that grows happiness and peace. In the book For A Future to Be Possible, he writes, “We can have a careful diet for our body and we can also have a careful diet for our consciousness, our mental health. We need to refrain from ingesting the kinds of intellectual food that bring toxins into our consciousness.”
He advises first to look within and become more aware of your own media consumption. When does it increase a sense of well-being, anxiety or loneliness? Could another activity help more? Using similar questions about your child’s media choices and habits, observe him or her without judgment for a few days and then begin initiating thoughtful conversations as a family. What does she or he need and seek? What qualities are fostered in the game or video? What do they mean? Share some of what you noticed about yourself and commit to supporting each other’s mindful consumption of media over time.
Human beings have always needed stories to help us grow up and grow wiser. Questions of life and death, mastery and failure, fairness and injustice come up every day. Essential to us are love, nurturing and the sensibility that the world and one’s life are complex fields for self-exploration and development. Stories can teach the truths that life is sacred, people are not just all good or bad and solutions to problems come from reflection, poise and the wisdom of seeing more than one perspective. Family stories can provide this kind of nourishment and sometimes mindfully chosen packaged media can too.
Andrew Kutt is the founder and head of Oneness-Family School, an international, progressive Montessori school in Chevy Chase, MD for children age 2 through eighth grade.