Now that teenagers are watching television and other media on a range of devices —phones, tablets and laptops as well as TVs — it becomes harder and harder for parents to keep a handle on what they are watching. But making a concerted effort to watch their favorite shows with tweens and teens can pay off big time.
Not only can it bring you closer to your child at a time when they are becoming less likely to confide in you, but watching together can spark conversations about difficult subjects — issues your child might not otherwise feel comfortable discussing with you. And talking about what you’re watching, even if it’s content you object to, gives you an opportunity to identify and correct media messaging that goes against the values you want them to develop. The key lies in making screen time into quality time.
Navigating the land mines of middle school
As our kids hit middle school, they frequently start confiding in us less. Just when identity issues, friendship dramas and peer pressure are becoming more intense. Television programs and other forms of media are often influential at this age.
“In middle school I think it’s really great to watch TV with your kids because it’s how you will know the cultural memes they’re tuning into,” says Catherine Steiner-Adair, clinical psychologist, school consultant, author of The Big Disconnect and a research associate at the Harvard Medical School. “The challenge is to watch with them and talk about it with them without being intense or scary or condemning. You can’t demonize the world our children are growing up in but you can help them learn how to deconstruct the values.”
When Dr. Steiner-Adair’s own daughter was in middle school they watched the Canadian show Degrassi High together. It became an opportunity to talk about all kinds of teenage issues that wouldn’t necessarily come up organically. “It left no stone unturned,” she says. “There was not one teenage issue that didn’t come up in that show. It became a very fun way to just talk. To talk about people’s feelings. To talk about the impact you have on other people. To talk about differences. To talk about race and class and identity.” Now several years later Dr. Steiner-Adair says she thinks “those are conversations kids are having more and more in school but it’s really important that they have them at home as well.”
Creating bonding experiences
Jane never imagined that she and her 10 year-old son Henry would end up bonding over the hit zombie TV show, The Walking Dead. She had no interest in watching it. But Jane and her husband are separated and Henry (who struggles with both depression and anxiety) was having trouble with the separation. He had started watching with his dad. “So I tried it and just fell in love with it,” she says. “It’s not just about these crazy zombies. It’s really about these families bonding,” she explains. “Henry’s pretty heartbroken over the separation so he really appreciates the family aspect of the show and watching it together helps with that.”
She also understands Henry’s identification with the main character, who is a resourceful survivor in a tough situation. “He’s attached himself to that and it’s good for him,” she says. Now watching the show together has become a ritual for Jane and Henry, who replaced the two chairs that used to be in front of the TV with a sofa they can sit on together. “We just kind of wrap our arms around each other,” she says. “It’s definitely quality time.”
Getting kids to open up
Matthew Rouse, a clinicial psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, says that once kids have the shared experience of watching difficult or uncomfortable content with a parent and then talking about it, they’re probably more likely to come to that parent when they face a similar problem in their real lives.
“When kids are talking about things that are very, very kind of sensitive and personal,” he says, “it’s easier sometimes to talk about them in a third-person way or talk about the issue as it’s related to a fictional character. And then, as they broach the topic they may eventually circle around to bring it back to something they’ve been struggling with.” So if you’ve already talked about the distorted body image issues some shows seem to be glamorizing, hopefully, if it begins to happen in real life, your child will feel you’re already “in the loop.”
Doing damage control
With the proliferation of devices on which teens are now consuming content, many parents are finding it almost impossible to keep kids away from programming that doesn’t reflect their values, or they feel may be harmful. “If you’re concerned about how someone’s portrayed, or messages about race, ethnicity, gender or identity,” says Dr. Rouse, “in watching it together it becomes a chance for you to counter whatever message that they may have gotten.”
This goes especially for content that could be traumatic or even dangerous to your child. The recent Netflix series 13 Reasons Why — which was widely criticized for depicting the suicide of a young girl in graphic detail — is a perfect example of this. “Teens are impressionable and I think parents need to know what their children are watching,” says Dr. Peter Faustino, a school psychologist and member of the Board of National School Psychologists. Dr. Faustino has three daughters of his own — only his 15-year-old chose to watch all of 13 Reasons Why. His 12-year-old twins decided they’d had enough after two episodes.
“I’m very fortunate I think, my daughters can handle the content in something like 13 Reasons Why,” Dr. Faustino says, “but there are a lot of children who are dealing with stress, trauma, mental illness. And in particular these vulnerable youth shouldn’t be watching this or should be watching this under parental advisement.”
But Dr. Faustino doesn’t advise forbidding your child to watch something all her peers are talking about just because it may be upsetting. “Saying no to watching these things kind of closes the door to conversations with teenagers. I think it’s better if parents can listen to their kids and ask questions that can clarify why they’re interested in certain topics,” he advises.
Why does that matter? “Because if a child says I want to watch it because everyone else is watching it, that’s very different than if they say ‘I’m feeling some of those things and I think that may be a way to solve my problems,’ ” Dr. Faustino adds. “That’s obviously a very different conversation and then parents have to correct those misunderstandings and misconceptions.”