Sunday, January 30, 2011


Will kids be affected by things they don’t understand? Or will these things just go “over their heads” and float away harmlessly?

Is it ok to watch CNN or an R-rated movie when your toddler or preschooler is in the room?

What harm can it do for school-age kids to watch teen-oriented shows?  After all, they don’t understand all the sexual innuendo and sexually-charged messages anyway, right?

Infants don't even notice what’s happening around them, do they?  How could watching a violent movie or tv show while nursing your infant be a problem? 

If adults talk about “adult things” or use “adult words” while kids are present, it’s ok as long as the kids don’t know what they are talking about, right?

If they don’t understand it, it’s not a problem, right?


Children of all ages absorb much more than adults realize, and many things they are exposed to at young ages can create stress and anxiety for them.  From birth, babies and children begin a process called “social referencing.”  Every second, they are looking at and listening to the people around them, to gradually form the basis for their view of the world.

In the early months of life, this social referencing is mostly in the form of sensory input, feelings, and impressions, because babies’ receptive language takes time to develop. They don’t know what your words mean when they are newborns, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t receiving clear messages from your tone of voice, your actions, and the general atmosphere around them.  

At a few weeks of age, babies begin to zero in on the facial expressions of the people that are important to them, and very quickly they put those expressions together in their minds with other emotional clues to read your feelings by looking at your face.  And when a baby or young child sees negative emotions on the face of his or her caregivers, the baby has no choice but to think that the distress is somehow related to them.  This is because of the normal developmental ego-centrism of this age.  If you’re upset or angry, the baby is likely to think it’s about them, because in infancy, babies experience EVERYTHING as being about them.

As children grow, this social referencing becomes more sophisticated.   They watch us to learn how to respond to problems, to pain, to joy, to the feelings of other people, and to life in general. This process continues for a very long time, and perhaps it even continues into adulthood.  My adult daughters have shown me that they are still very sensitive to me and their dad, and are very much affected by our emotions, or their perceptions of them.  And I have to admit that I’m still very in-tune with my 80-year-old mom, and often still catch myself observing her to see how I should respond to something, just as I did when I was a kid.

So what does all this have to do with TV shows, movies, newscasts, video games, music,  and other aspects of media exposure? If you look at it from the children’s viewpoint it’s pretty simple. 

When a baby hears gunshots, explosions, and cries of anger and aggression coming from the soundtrack of your Friday night Netflix choice, and then they see your face registering no surprise or concern, it can give the baby the message that hurting people is of no consequence.  Or if they see that you are distressed by these sounds and images, they can become anxious about your feelings, and often feel responsible for your distress.

When a child watches a movie intended for much older people, with complex emotional themes and complicated relationships, they are confronted with emotions that they are not yet equipped to deal with, so they may shut down and ignore those feelings. But the feelings don’t completely go away, so the child can be left with under-the-surface questions and anxieties which are not appropriate for their stage of development.  And worse, they usually do not even have the language or experience they need to be able to express their need for help.

When kids of any age are allowed to watch or to play violent video games, no matter what our words may say about “we do not hurt people,” our actions of playing and condoning the hurtful actions on the screen speak much louder than those words.  We expose kids to violence in many, many ways, and then we wonder why they push or hit a playmate at school.  The connection is obvious when you think about it, but many adults do not see it. Or don't WANT to see it.

The problem is that we adults want what we want when we want it.  We want to be able to watch movies, listen to the news, play games, or engage in other activities, and we want to believe  it’s ok if our kids are “too young to get it.”   But the thing is:  kids are NEVER too young to “get it,” and as parents we have to put some of our own needs on hold at times to accommodate a child’s needs.  Wait until they’re in bed to watch your movie or play your game. 

Be sensitive to the social referencing that is such an intense part of growing up.  And let your kids take their time growing into their understanding of the world.

Nothing goes “over their heads,” so that’s why WE, the adults, have to use ours. 

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