Empathy & the Media: 10 Simple Rules for Parents to Help Build Empathy in Kids & Teenagers by Lynne Azarchi
There’s little argument that media rules our children’s land. The only thing that varies is which type of media is used by which age groups. For our younger kids, it’s television. Kids aged 5 to 8 spend more than an hour in front of the TV (more time for kids aged 2 to 4). Teenagers do their viewing online, using services such as Netflix and YouTube Overall, North American teens and young adults spend an average of 170 minutes – nearly three hours – per day on social media.
All of us are bombarded in the news by stories about people whose lives have been destroyed by violence, disease, natural disaster or poverty. It’s natural to feel helpless and overwhelmed and to create walls to protect ourselves. Curling up on a couch to watch TV or immersing ourselves in a smartphone is an understandable escape from it all.
But is it really such an escape? Children frequently have their first experience with violence when watching television or a movie or playing a video game. This exposure introduces them early to pain and suffering. So it’s no wonder that they are desensitized to emotion early. I’m not saying that these shows or video games turn our kids to violence. But they do desensitize our kids, and we want to reverse that trend because it crowds out the sensitivity and empathy they need.
Do you ever watch reality shows with your children in which contestants are humiliated? Remember how Simon Cowell became a household name with his nasty putdowns of American Idol contestants that drove them to tears? Ask yourself (and your family) why it’s funny to watch others’ pain and embarrassment. It’s one thing when others perform silly antics and want you to laugh. It’s another when they’re singing their hearts out and then having their hearts broken.
I think there’s a lot to learn from reality TV. Sit with your family and discuss whether a person’s privacy is being invaded. Discuss why there is so much humiliation and exclusion shown, often with a “laugh track.” Would you emulate what you see on TV and repeat it in your home or classroom? Would you try to embarrass a spouse or a child? Of course not.
10 Simple Rules for Empathy and Media
- Limit each family member to one hour a day of media and stick to it (you may want to increase the media time for tweens and teens).
- Reduce exposure to shows with violence and negative emotions; in research studies, these shows have been seen to increase aggression.
- Set a goal of no media one to two hours before bed. Media disrupts sleeping patterns.
- Use technology to install a software program on tablets and phones that powers them off. Not because you’re the boss, but because it is good for your children.
- Watch over all devices, including phones, tablets, desktops, TVs and any other media. In other words, kids should check them “in” and “out.”
- Talk to your family about social media – especially kindness, respect and permission. Rule No. 1: Don’t embarrass others.
- No media during mealtimes. Period.
- Be aware of your own behavior. If you are restricting your kids, you must set limits for yourself and your spouse. You are a role model.
- Discuss media with your kids. Watch their favorite shows with them and analyze together what you’re viewing. Discuss violence, competition, exclusion and meanness and tell stories of how kids got in trouble relating to privacy issues.
- Make sure that media content is developmentally appropriate. Make sure an elementary schooler is not watching what a teenager would.
This is an adapted excerpt from THE EMPATHY ADVANTAGE: Coaching Children to Be Kind, Respectful and Successful by Lynne Azarchi, published by Rowman & Littlefield. © 2020.
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