Our children are being nurtured and guided by machines — modern media delivery systems – and the media they deliver. They have taken over the parenting functions that once were performed by human beings.
This may sound like a horror movie plot from the 1950s, but it is a twenty-first century reality. All too often, well-meaning parents have abdicated their roles as nurturers, caregivers, teachers, confidantes, guides, and role models—leaving TV, videogames, movies, smart phones, and the Internet to fill in. And our children are paying the price.
The pros and cons of particular media products are beside the point. The question now is: How can we take back our role as parents when the media are steadily winning over our kids? When the Media Is the Parent provides answers by offering compelling case histories into what happens to individual children who are left with the media as the main source of parenting. As a psychiatrist specializing in child and adolescent psychiatry, I will analyze the stories of these child-patients of mine, bringing my psychological expertise to offer insight and empathy, and to suggest practical parenting advice all parents can use in these media saturated times.
I have been dealing with the issue of children and the media for over twenty years. Many of my patients are children who, overwhelmed and desperate, have turned to the media for answers rather than to their often troubled or absent parents. They seek solace in everything from comic book superheroes, to suicidal rock stars, to violent videogames, or pornographic websites. Because their parents are often unavailable, and their extended families and community resources not readily accessible, these young people avail themselves of the ubiquitous and ever-increasing variety of media offerings. This human-machine-media attachment often leads to fantasies, attitudes, behaviors, and actions that are at times helpful and meaningful, but often are extremely self-destructive.
Although I work with these child-patients to help them understand their stories and the circumstances that brought them to despair, it is only by enlisting the support of their parents or caretakers that meaningful solutions can be found for these kids.
Readers of When the Media Is the Parent will learn that by adhering to the guidelines I have developed throughout my years as a child psychiatrist, they can begin to influence their children in healthier ways. These guidelines include:
- Gather the data – Keep track of the number of hours a week your child engages with the media, the number of hours a week s/he spends studying and reading, and the number of hours a week s/he spends in direct, face-to-face contact with the family
- Practice “media minimalism” – Adhere to a strict policy of no media devices in bedrooms, dining rooms or kitchens. In family and living rooms, one media device per room. One TV per household.
- Become media literate – Watch, listen to, and study the media products your child is engaged with, including TV shows, videogames, websites, recordings, etc.
- Limit your child’s media time – Set the rules and enforce them.
- Be a “limited media time” role model – Engage in activities with friends and family that involve authentic interaction—i.e., no TV, videogames, or Internet.
As the case stories in When the Media Is the Parent reveal, children are not just having fun during the five or more hours a day they spend in front of TV and videogame screens. They are finding solutions to their real life problems and forming a set of values to live by as they listen, play, and watch. Throughout the book, readers will meet young people whose experiences offer a warning—and in many cases a hopeful example (as their parents follow my guidelines and the child improves in many ways.
Readers will be introduced to:
- Fourteen-year-old Eden, who looked to certain MTV stars for solutions to her family problems and who carved seemingly relevant song titles into her arm
- Robin, a ten-year-old boy whose acting-out behaviors could be traced to parental dysfunction as well as to his identification with the comic book superhero Wolverine and the arch-villain Magneto
- Lara, an eleven-year-old prone to suicidal gestures, such as wrist-cutting and ingesting three or four aspirins, and fascinated with horror films, especially A Nightmare on Elm Street—whose distress was based in part on her parents’ unavailability
- Fifteen-year-old Brian, who fantasized about committing violence against his so-called “enemies”—the bullies who made fun of him at school—and was inspired by the videogame The Legend of Kain: Blood Omen, in which the murdered hero is resurrected in the form of a vampire so that he can exact revenge upon those who have wronged him.
When parents are dysfunctional, neglectful, preoccupied, overly indulgent or unavailable, the role of the media expands in the lives of children like those whose stories I will recount in the book—and millions of others. In our media saturated culture, children are drawn in by easily available, eye-catching graphics, gripping storylines, and simplistic messages. Unfortunately, in the process of being “entertained,” these children discover solutions to family, interpersonal, and internal problems that can involve deceit, violence, sex, drugs, alcohol, and suicide.
While some of the case histories in this book may seem extreme, there are millions of families facing similar issues. Sometimes we are aware of common problems only when they make the headlines due to a dire or violent outcome, or when they are brought to our attention in a book such as this. But the following statistics point to the growing number of children who are vulnerable to the troubles highlighted in When the Media Is the Parent:
- Spousal infidelity occurs in 30% to 60% of all marriages.1
- Divorce hits about 50% of all families.2
- More than 22% of girls under the age of eighteen are sexually abused, usually in their own homes,3
- The statistic is even higher in single parent households.4
- About 10% of all children suffer from ADD or ADHD.
- Suicide is the third most common cause of death for people between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four, behind homicide and accident,
- and, more shocking still, suicide is the fourth most common cause of death for children between the ages of ten and fourteen.5
- Up to ten million children witness some form of domestic violence annually.6
- Between two and three million people in the U.S. exhibit some type of self-abusive behavior, including anorexia and self-injury (cutting).7
- And with regard to media time versus family time: From 1965 to the present, the amount of time that the average child spends with his parents has dropped from about thirty hours per week to about seventeen,8 while time spent viewing or listening to various media rose to thirty-five to forty hours per week.9
As readers of When the Media Is the Parent will learn, the so-called “family values” debate in this country is erroneously framed. The real debate should not be about polarizing issues such as abortion, teen pregnancy, or homosexuality. Rather, we must confront the question that has become the overlooked elephant in the room: How can we raise our kids to be healthy, resilient, caring individuals in a society where profit-driven media trump family relationships?
When the Media Is the Parent shows readers why it is so crucial to “unplug” from the media and reconnect with our children. And it offers parents expert advice on how to do just that.
Advance Praise for When the Media Is the Parent
“In When the Media Is the Parent, George Drinka joins those therapist-writers, from Robert Lindner to Mary Pipher, who, responding to the public’s continuing interest in the inner lives of troubled people, have made understandable in human terms experience that otherwise is puzzling, even frightening. Drinka also joins those, from Erich Fromm and Erik Erikson to Robert Jay Lifton and Robert Coles, who have listened carefully to patients and used what they have learned to shed light on the larger challenges children and the rest of us face as our world changes. This educational, humanizing, and provocative work deserves wide attention.”
–Gordon Harper, MD, Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School; Medical Director, Child and Adolescent Services, Massachusetts Department of Mental Health.
“The vivid, plentiful descriptions of these kids and their problems, and Dr. Drinka’s interactions with them are superbly rendered here. He especially captures an openness taught by his youthful patients about how to talk with them within the pained worlds in which they struggle to survive. This is no easy task. His accessible observations about the role of, say, “Star Wars”, Madonna, Grand Theft Auto III or the X-men, as forms of contemporary myth-making that reverberate with their/our internal worlds in universal ways is a rich and significant point for any therapist, counselor, teacher or parent interested in the inner climate of a child’s or adolescent’s mind. Dr. Drinka is bleak about the negative impact of much of modern TV and Internet culture on these delicate minds. Whether or not one agrees with his indictment of the culture, his passion for the psychological welfare of these clients in their environs -- so replete with poverty of adult human interaction — will provoke much responsive thinking.”
– Rosemary Balsam, MD, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Yale Medical School; Staff Psychiatrist, Dept. of Student Mental Health and Counseling, Yale University; Training and Supervising Analyst, Western New England Inst for Psychoanalysis.
- Buss, David and Shackelford, Todd, “Susceptibility to Infidelity in the First Year of Marriage,” Journal of Research on Personality, 1997. Volume 31.
- “Divorce and Marriage Rates,” CDC.gov/Diseases and Conditions.
- Gorey, Kevin and Leslie, Donald, “The Prevalence of Child Sexual Abuse: Integrative Review Adjustment for Potential Response and Measurement Biases,” Child Abuse and Neglect. Vol. 21, issue 4, April, 1997.
- “Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity,”CDC.gov/Diseases and Conditions.
- Teen Suicide Statistics.com
- Domestic Violence Statistics.org/domestic-violence-statistics
- Teen Help.com, “Cutting Statistics and Self-injury Treatment”
- Steyer, James, The Other Parent. Atria Books, 2002.
- Nunez-Smith, Marcella, et al, “Media and Child and Adolescent Health: a Systematic Review,” Common Sense Media, November 2008; and Steyer, ibid