For years, the evils of society have been attributed to television. Television is blamed for the problems we face: from youth escaping reality, to alcohol and drug abuse, to the formation of empty, unreflective minds. For the most part, it’s true. Television programs are decreasingly disrespectful toward audiences. Violence and sex prevail, anti-heroes are presented as role models, anti-values are transmitted, and broken families are presented as the norm.
Before, traditional media, such as the press, the television, and the radio, only led to passivity, especially in the case of television, which has had a tremendous impact on society. For Tapscott and Fidler (1998), there are three audiovisual generations called “Baby boom”, “Baby burst”, and “The Baby Boom Echo” or Net-Generation.
The first two are characterized for having grown up with media that was analogical, linear, divergent, made for the masses, and “monomedial”. People’s relationship with these media was passive, in the sense that they were mere spectators. This last generation, the “Baby Boom Echo”, is formed with digital, personalized, convergent, non-linear, “multimedia” media. Their relationship with the media is active and varied. This latter characteristic, in which the person is a spectator, participant, and producer in relation to the media, has led to coining the term “prosumer” (a word created from the fusion of “producer” and “consumer”). Marshall McLuhan and Barrigton Nevitt had introduced this concept years ago in their book Take Today (1972). There, the authors stated that electronic technology would permit the consumer to simultaneously assume the roles of producer and consumer of media content.
That being said, our actions regarding media do not have to necessarily be linked to the “magic toaster”, as many authors say when referring to the television for the way in which it interacts with our brains. Parents rather ought to work to positively guide their children who face other screens that bear positive as well as negative aspects.
These “screens” are the Internet, cell phones, and video game consoles, which are highly appealing to children. They allow various activities to be carried out simultaneously, in an interactive, local and global way. This multi-screen generation uses the media to “communicate” (email, sms, chat), to “know” (web, downloads...), to “share” (social networks, photos, videos...), to “entertain” (online gaming, radio, and digital TV) and to “consume” (online shopping).
Before reaching the age of ten, many boys and girls in Colombia, as in other parts of the world, have access to every type of screen. More than half have cell phones, three quarters have habitual access to the Internet, and practically all- 9 out of 10- play videogames on a more or less regular basis.
Traditional media and the new screens have positive and negative aspects. They allow for integration, interactivity, the creation of social networks based on friendship and common interests; they facilitate communication and the development of important cognitive capacities and motor skills. However, without an adequate orientation and control, these technologies can become a problem if children are left open to an enormous quantity of information without a context, or to people with bad intentions, or to harassment; they can fall into physical inactivity and even to social apathy from their dependence on these machines and on what they generate.
Parents are worried about how they should deal with their children’s relationship to the new technologies, which we generically group into the term “screens”. One possible response to their concern is education, i.e. teach and cultivate goods habits that foster a proper use of these screens.
For years, people have been talking about parents as mediators who guide, accompany, set the example, and so on. Nevertheless, in order for these strategies to function, there must be collaboration and understanding on the part of the parents with regard to the impact of new and old media on the minds of the even smallest children.
Habits. This is the issue. But not only for parents. It is fundamental that the children, from a very young age, are educated in how to use the media. But how should parents do this?
According to Serge Tisseron, child psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and Director of Research at the University of Paris Ouest-Nanterre, there is a way. As the fruit of his experience and research, Tisseron proposes the “3-6-9-12 Rule” as a guide for parents about the appropriate age groups for the use of each of the technologies. The proposal has been released by the French Association on Ambulatory Pediatrics (AFPA). The five rules are as follows.
1) Avoid the screens for children under 3. Numerous studies demonstrate that children under the age of three do not benefit from frequent exposure to the screens. Along these same lines, other studies prove playing to be much more enriching for children than sitting them in front of the television.
2) Do not use portable video consoles before age 6. When video games are introduced too early on, they absorb all of the child’s attention to the detriment of other activities.
3) No Internet for children under 9 and once they begin to use the Internet, children must be accompanied by a teacher or their parents, who ought to explain the three basic rules for Internet usage: a. all that is published on the Internet can fall into public domain, b. all that is uploaded onto the Internet will remain there forever, c. not everything that can be found on the Internet is reliable, which means that other sources must be consulted because not all of the information published on the Web is true.
4) Unsupervised Internet use starting at age 12. Children can only access the Web starting at this age, but their usage should be with prudence. Parents ought to accompany them and define the rules of usage and the timetable, as well as employ parental controls available on the computer itself or through outside providers.
The 3-6-9-12 Rule is necessary, but not sufficient. It is important, moreover, to regulate the time that children spend in front of these screens at all ages. We must keep in mind, however, that if we parents don’t do our work, others will.
The issue doesn’t change. It should be maintained: parents have the primary responsibility in educating and forming their children in all dimensions. And this responsibility is unavoidable.
Juan Camilo Díaz is a professor in the Department of Communication in the University of La Sabana (Colombia).