Helping Children Understand the Media’s Influence
January 1987

“Helping Children Understand the Media’s Influence,” Ensign, Jan. 1987, 56

Handbook for Families

Helping Children Understand the Media’s Influence

Our children are growing up in a “media age” in which mass communications are both widely available and highly influential. This is at once a benefit and a problem. The media can educate and entertain, inform and inspire.

However, just as we would never think of allowing uninsulated, exposed electrical wires in our homes for our children to tamper with, we must also insulate and control our family’s exposure to the potentially devastating damage, albeit potentially wonderful capabilities, of television, radio, movies, videotapes, records, audiotapes, magazines, and newspapers.

As Latter-day Saints, we must be exemplary in our selection of the good and in our resistance of the evil that comes through the media. As parents, therefore, we must be aware of the media’s influence on our children’s perceptive, formative minds and help them learn to make wise choices.

Of all the media, television has perhaps become the most influential. For that reason, this discussion will concentrate on television. But the specific comments made about television can be applied to all forms of mass communication.

The cultural and informative programs available on television today allow more people than ever before the opportunity to experience great music, drama, art, and the thoughts and lives of great men and women. Too few families take advantage of these superb presentations. Part of the reason we may miss them is that less worthy programs, extraordinarily promoted, often attract more attention. If we take the time as a family to write letters of appreciation to companies that sponsor quality programs and to the networks and local stations that carry them, our children will learn to recognize quality and to encourage it.

Another thing we can do is to carefully plan these kinds of quality programs into our family activities—thus making television an intentional rather than an incidental thing in our lives. How we control the media will determine whether they become useful servants or dominating masters of our time and our mental energies. Even quality television programs can have a detrimental effect if we allow them to take too much of our time from other worthwhile activities.

Different methods of management will work for different families. Some families choose not to have a television set at all. Others watch only a certain number of hours each week. Others have a rule: TV can be watched only if the house is tidy and chores and homework are done.

Families need to determine together how they can be selective. President Gordon B. Hinckley has advised us: “Use that most remarkable of all tools of communication, television, to enrich your [family’s] lives. There is so much that is good, but it requires selectivity.” (Ensign, Nov. 1975, p. 39.)

Even good television programs can be taken in doses too big. And some of the ideas they communicate can subtly undermine positive values. Wendell Berry, a thoughtful contemporary writer on the family, describes the TV cord as “a vacuum line, pumping life and meaning out of the household.” He continues: “TV and other media have learned to suggest with increasing subtlety … that it is better to consume than to produce, to buy than to grow or make, to ‘go out’ than to stay home. If you have a TV, your children will be subjected almost from the cradle to an overwhelming insinuation that all worth experiencing is somewhere else and that all worth having must be bought.” Berry describes this problem as a technicolor version of life somewhere else drawing our children away from what we value, to consume that other version of life. (The Gift of Good Land, San Francisco: North Point Press, 1981, p. 156.)

Television not only portrays culture, it also influences it considerably. In some programs, for example, family life is made to appear foolish and unrewarding. Fathers and mothers are portrayed as weak and unhappy in their traditional roles. In these and other programs, reality is distorted, and children can develop false expectations about life even as they sit next to us watching. They can be lead to believe that life’s complex problems always have quick, simple solutions that can be worked out in a single half-hour or hour episode.

The question to be asked, then, is: What would our family be doing together or individually if we weren’t watching TV? Would we be reading more, singing more, playing more games together, and practicing more of the useful arts of living? Would more of such activities make our life as a family more fulfilling and help us grow closer to our Heavenly Father and to each other? Quite often, the answers to such questions can help families decide to limit their time as “consumers” in front of the television set and spend more time “producing” more of their own enjoyment.

Recently, a mother was interested in doing something about the time television was taking away from the elementary-school-age children in her neighborhood. She started a campaign to encourage more time away from television, calling it “Turn Off Your TV, Turn On Your Mind.” She challenged all the students at her children’s school to abstain from watching television—except for two to three hours a week of news or educational programs—for one month. Support from the principal and the faculty was easily won. Although some parents and children refused to take part, those who did participate learned to use their time in more worthwhile pursuits. Teachers contributed ideas for harnessing the energies of the students, and the children undertook special projects like participating in reading marathons, building models, and performing experiments.

The project turned out to be a memorable experience for the children, and participants were given awards for the creative uses of their time. Local news media covered the event and praised the efforts of those involved. This mother’s efforts raised the consciousness of television’s influence not only in her own family, but throughout her community and city as well.

The options for individual and family growth are limitless once we realize that we can turn off the TV and turn on our minds. When exploring alternatives to watching television, parents might want to conduct a media influence survey in their families. The following questions could serve as a guide:

  1. Make a list of what family members watch, listen to, and read for one week. Include television, videotapes, movies, records, audiotapes, radio, books, magazines, and newspapers. Determine how much time is spent in each of these activities.

  2. Calculate how many hours each week you use television as a baby-sitter for your children. Does it vary with the ages of the children?

  3. Do you take part in the selection of programs for your young children? For your older children?

  4. What programs do you as parents watch or listen to? What movies do you attend?

  5. To what magazines do you subscribe? What books and other reading material are available in your home?

  6. Where is the television located in your home? Is it the central piece of furniture, with the couch and chairs situated around it?

  7. How often is the television on during meals? Does it influence the quality of dinner conversation? Does it help create an atmosphere of communication?

  8. Are there television sets in any bedrooms in your home? How do they influence sleep, work, or study habits?

  9. How often do you take the time as a family to discuss a program after you watch it? What about its message and the implications of that message in your lives? Do you ever talk about how that message compares or contrasts with the gospel?

  10. Are you satisfied with the influence of the media in your home? Which areas would you like to change?

After conducting this survey, you may wish to ask your children to guess the amount of time they think they spend watching television. After comparing your answers with theirs, you may want to discuss your family’s media appetite in a family council and evaluate it together. If you determine as a family that changes need to be made, these can be agreed upon, and praise and commendation can be given for good choices already being made. In cases in which viewing is excessive, families may want to establish a set of rules or guidelines to regulate the influence of television in their homes.

Parents may want to consider adopting any or all of the following ideas to regulate what their family watches on television. Of course, they can be modified to cover all forms of media.

  1. Unless there is something really worthwhile on, the television will be off.

  2. If a program does not meet gospel standards, it is not appropriate. Gospel standards are the same for parents as for children. Programs that promote immorality or violence will not be watched—even if they have widespread acclaim.

  3. Parents won’t use the television inappropriately as a baby-sitter.

  4. Children’s shows will be checked frequently by parents. Even children’s educational programs may at times not meet the standards agreed upon in family council.

  5. Selected sports events will be viewed in moderation.

  6. When a particularly excellent special program is scheduled, it will be put on the family calendar so that the family can enjoy it together.

  7. On the Sabbath, if the television is turned on at all, the program must be in keeping with the Sabbath day.

  8. The house must be tidy and schoolwork done or under control before the television is turned on.

  9. Guidelines will be left for baby-sitters to follow when parents are absent. (For a similar set of family rules, see Ensign, Aug. 1976, p. 21.)

Some parents resist imposing restraints on their families, thinking that to manage what family members watch, listen to, or read is a form of censorship. The truth is, we all censor what we read, watch, or listen to. It’s called making a choice. None of us has the time to do everything, so we must choose how to spend our time. Since recent studies suggest that a diet of television violence and pornography can lead viewers to violent or lascivious behavior, why not exercise a choice in favor of more positive programs or activities? President Ezra Taft Benson has said, “The leisure time of children must be constructively directed to wholesome, positive pursuits. Too much time viewing television can be destructive, and pornography in this medium should not be tolerated.” (Ensign, Nov. 1982, p. 60.)

We will not go wrong if we heed our prophet’s counsel. Even a little contact with pornography can introduce us to ways of thinking and acting that may never have occurred to us otherwise.

How to explain to our children the need to avoid even momentary contact with negative influences can be illustrated by a conversation between a mother and her daughter. They had been talking about a questionable TV program that the girl wanted to watch. Hoping to convince her mother to let her see the show, the girl pleaded: “Mom, it won’t hurt me just to watch this one show.”

The mother sought some way to help her daughter see that once can hurt. She asked her daughter, who was wearing her best dress and ready to go on a special date, to go out to the smokehouse, where they were curing meat for the winter, and bring something back before she left for the date. The girl refused to go, saying that it would make her smell bad all evening and would ruin her dress. Her mother replied that, indeed, just once is all that is necessary for bad influence to diminish spirituality.

Media—whether good or bad—can be habit-forming. But it is a habit that can be broken. One woman who was “addicted” to watching daytime soap operas decided to rearrange her life and her priorities and to stop what she felt was a time- and mind-wasting practice. She succeeded, and later wrote: “Sometimes our whole family watches a show together, and it’s fun. But now I’m the master. When I want to invite newsmen, actors, or entertainers into my home I do so. But it’s because they have informative and/or morally, spiritually, and emotionally uplifting programs to offer—not just because they’re there.” (Ensign, Mar. 1977, p. 19.)

Together with the Lord, parents and children can learn to escape the barrage of dazzling media specials, mini-series, and spectaculars and engage in more productive activities. As families do this, they will find that they are talking more to each other, listening more to each other, and discovering more things about each other than they ever have before. Such activity will foster a kind of communication that is more important than any that can come through the mass media.

Illustrated by Mark Robison