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What pediatricians, parents can do to mitigate harm from negative media messages :

March 10, 2020

Before social media, children were exposed to advertising and negative stereotypes mostly on the family television or in newspapers and magazines brought into the home.

Today, the media and advertisers have 24-hour access to homes as they pressure children (who typically are without adult supervision) to fit into a certain image. Those with social power reward or punish expressions of religion, ethnicity, gender or weight to conform to majority standards. As a result, some youths see themselves as undeserving and separate from the “norm.”

Fortunately, parents remain the greatest influencers of children’s lives. However, the challenge of promoting a child’s independence while providing structure requires continuous attention.

Pediatricians can play an important role in addressing the media's role in perpetuating the toxic stress of negative images based on race, gender, ability and body type. Here are some tips you can offer families on how to counter the harm children experience through media as well as what you and your practice can do.

  • Model positive behavior. From the exam room to the dinner table, children observe the behavior of the people they admire. Clinics should consider what media choices are available. Adults should engage with positive media and also demonstrate that media is not the default activity when we are unoccupied.
  • Include different perspectives. Negative stereotypes and expressions of discrimination are significant even when only a small number of people are affected. All children deserve the opportunity to see themselves in a positive representation. Clinics should be an encouraging place with inclusive images.
  • Create media-free zones and times. While the debate continues on media’s influence, consensus exists that we learn from exposure and repetition. Media creators’ primary purpose is to capture attention and expose others to their message as much as possible. Turning off media is like getting out of the swimming pool. You can’t swim without water, and you can’t experience toxic images without media.
  • Have uncomfortable conversations. Few issues improve by ignoring them, especially emotional and behavioral problems. Stress is a reflection of lack of control. Having a conversation about the feelings, thoughts and experiences associated with threatening stereotypes is the first step to exerting control over the situation.
  • Use your voice/platform to call for change. Letters and phone calls to editors, producers and politicians may seem intimidating or feel like shouting into the void. The reality is that silence has no chance of creating change. Speaking out produces some feeling of control and lets media producers know someone is concerned.

Media no longer is a passive experience controlled by a select few. While some organizations have considerable influence, there are more choices than ever before. Parents and anyone invested in child health can influence youths’ choices of what to consume and when, and help them avoid negative messages and process the messages they receive.

The problem is ever-changing, and media will adapt to our efforts. We have the same ability to adapt our efforts to reduce children’s exposure to toxic media.

Dr. Hutchinson is a member of the AAP Council on Communications and Media.

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