Overcome Holiday Media Madness

The Best Things in Life Aren’t Things

If your children watch commercial television, go to the movies, play video games or spend leisure time on the computer surfing the Internet or chatting and texting with friends, they already know exactly what they must have to be happy this holiday season. That’s because ads aimed at kids are everywhere, enticing them to desire toys, branded clothing, foods and other  products they don’t really need and their parents might not be able to afford. Nor will these things they want so desperately make them happy.

Family Media Diets

How much is too much of a good thing? According to The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation’s study of media in the lives of 8- to 18-year-olds, young people today consume more media than ever before—about 7½ hours a day, often multitasking or using media simultaneously. At the same time, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than two hours of screen media use per day for children over 2 and none for younger children—with good reason. While exposure to media in moderation can be educational and entertaining, the Center on Media and Child Health links excessive media consumption with poor diet, poor body image, obesity, earlier sexual activity, smoking, violence, disturbed sleep and increased anxiety.

Psychologist Susan Linn, director and co-founder of the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), explains that exposure to media and marketing also promotes materialistic values in children and is stressful for families. CCFC conference reports on relevant research show that conflict between parents and children is often directly related to children’s exposure to advertising.

Juliet Schor, author of Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture, says, “[Even] psychologically healthy children will be made worse off if they become more enmeshed in the culture of getting and spending.”

Likewise, Tim Kasser, author of The High Price of Materialism and psychology professor at Knox College, in Galesburg, Illinois, reports that countries with the highest levels of kid-targeted marketing have the least happy kids.

Secrets of Family Happiness

It turns out that what kids really value, but may not express, is quality time with their family. Our sense of well-being depends less on stuff and more on relationships, a sense of belonging, community and spiritual nourishment, according to research led by Kasser and colleague Kennon M. Sheldon, a psychology professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Granted, time isn’t easily packaged and placed under a tree. Instead, parents can pull the plug, or at least set time limits, watch and talk about media content together, agree to buy less stuff and schedule more meaningful free time together.

Here are some ideas to create happy holiday memories to last a lifetime:

Document family history. Turn kids into roving reporters and interview relatives to learn and record the family’s past. Start with a family tree, and then fill in fun details. Where did Great-grandpa come from? What did he eat for lunch at school and what was Grandma’s favorite holiday recipe when she was a child? What games did your grandparents play as kids?

Revisit the family’s culinary heritage. Make traditional dishes and take photographs of the finished masterpieces. Make a scrapbook with recipes, pictures and stories about the recipes to create a treasured family holiday cookbook.

Share skills. Elders may have talents they’d like to pass down to younger generations. Such activities include sewing, quilting, knitting, bread making (from scratch), woodworking, painting, dancing, drawing, jewelry making and playing musical instruments.

Resist the pressure to put a TV in a child’s bedroom. It guarantees that the youngster will spend more time with advertisers and less time with you or engaged in books, physical activity and creative play. TV also exposes children to cultural messages that may lie outside a family’s values. Talk to your children about those potential conflicts.

Discuss the use and impact of advertising. Explore how ads grab our attention through use of color, music and celebrities. Ask kids how an ad makes them feel, and show them how ads sell us “lifestyles.” See if you can spot branded products in movies.

Declare a screen-free day or TV-free week. It may take some getting used to at first, but the rewards are many. You’ll discover you have extra time to be together as a family, play games, read and enjoy meaningful conversation.

Nourish each child’s spirit with a printed or even framed list of what you love about them, and why they’re the greatest gift of all. Then prove it, by showering them with your “presence.”

For more ideas and insights, visit www.NewDream.org/holiday/index.php, www.cmch.tv and www.CommercialFreeChildhood.org.

Melinda Hemmelgarn is a Midwest-based registered dietitian and freelance journalist and the host of Food Sleuth Radio. She teaches media literacy workshops nationwide. Reach her at FoodSleuth@gmail.com.

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