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Journal Issue: Children and Electronic Media Volume 18 Number 1 Spring 2008

Media and Children's Aggression, Fear, and Altruism
Barbara J. Wilson

Parental Influence on Children's Media Experiences

Parents, it turns out, can play an important and positive role in how electronic media affect young people's lives: they can not only enhance the benefits but also reduce the risks associated with children's media exposure. Parents who watch prosocial programming with their child and reinforce the messages in different portrayals can enhance their child's prosocial learning.126 Such active mediation can include explaining and discussing the moral lessons in a plot, reinforcing the information through rehearsal, and engaging in role-playing activities that elaborate on the information.

By helping children think critically about potentially harmful content in the media, parents can also reduce the impact of media violence.127 In one experiment, elementary school children who were encouraged to think about the victim while watching a violent cartoon liked the aggressor less, liked the victim more, and believed that the violence was less justified than did children who received no such guidance.128 Moreover, boys who were given such guidance were less aggressive after viewing the cartoon than were boys who received no such help; girls were less aggressive overall so the mediation had no impact on their behavior.

Parents can also teach children coping strategies to deal with frightening images in the media. Discussing the special effects used in a horror film or explaining that fantasy events on the screen cannot happen in real life are both effective techniques to reduce children's fright reactions.129 Such “cognitive” strategies work especially well with older elementary school children who can comprehend such information and store it in memory for later use.130 For younger children, “noncognitive” strategies such as providing physical comfort and turning off the program seem most effective. 131 Parents should consider shielding children, especially preschoolers, from the types of fictional themes that are most frightening at different points in development.

When it is the news that is frightening to children, parents' role is more challenging. Older children can be taught to recognize that news programming overemphasizes crime and violence and that many terrible events covered in the news, such as child kidnapping, occur only infrequently in the real world.132 Permitting children under the age of eight to see graphic images in the news, even inadvertently when the TV is on in the background, may present challenges because such content is hard to explain to younger age groups. In the case of major catastrophes, research suggests that all children benefit from curtailed television exposure and constructive conversations with a calm parent.133

In general, it is essential for parents to monitor the media content their children view and find attractive. Such parental involvement is arguably more important than establishing rules about how much time children can spend watching TV or playing video games. Guiding children's media choices and helping children become critical consumers of media content can foster the prosocial benefits of spending time in front of a screen while preventing some of the risks.