An open letter to all parents who believe media is ‘digital heroin’ for kids

teens social media

To all parents who are even a bit concerned about the media “problem” among American children, here’s a spoiler alert: screen media is not going anywhere. So, we can either believe the scaremongering that is spread on social media, or we can come to terms with reality.

On August 28, 2016 the New York Post published “The Frightening Effects of Digital Heroin.” According to the Post, the article has garnered more than 3.3 million views and has prompted hundreds of parents to write letters of concern. Since then, parents have called for the elimination of technology in schools and have even threatened to pull kids out of schools that require technology use. If your kids use media, the article suggests, they will turn into violent, screen-hugging psychotic junkies. The article implies that we’ve lost a generation of children to the media. And I can’t take it any longer.

Here’s the problem. If the media has an effect–and it does–then it’s parents we need to be most concerned about, because when it comes to media, parents simply do not parent. I’ve come to the conclusion that the state of media parenting is so awful in America due to one of three reasons: (1) Parents do not understand the power of the media, (2) Parents do not understand the influence they have in children’s lives, or (3) Parents know that media exposure has an effect but they don’t know what to do about it. In other words, parents are largely media illiterate.

We who actually study children and media know, and have known for years, that parental involvement in children’s media use from an early age may be the key to raising kids who are armed with the tools necessary to deal with media content. Research, including my own research, shows that parents are perhaps the most powerful influence in shaping how kids are affected by media exposure. When parents talk to kids about media content, children respond differently. When parents set rules about media content, kids’ behavior changes. And the mere presence of a parent when a child watches TV can change children’s brain-body connection in such a way that their very physiology changes. So, we can complain about the media and how it affects kids all day long. But complaining, as I tell my own kids, never solves any problems. What solves problems is attacking the root of the problem. And the more I research and the more I interact with my own kids, the more I’m convinced that it’s not children’s media use that is problematic. The root of the problem appears to be the state of parenting in this country.

Perhaps the media illiteracy rate in America is the fault of researchers. Our research rarely gets out to parents, and when we do try to share our research we don’t do it in a way that is helpful for parents. That means that articles that are widely shared on social media become parents’ sole source of information about media. And what we read, more often than not, are articles intended to scare parents. Fear, however, doesn’t motivate. It paralyzes.

So, to follow my own advice now I’ll quit complaining about all the complaining about media that I see and try to be part of the solution. I’m sure the author of the “Digital Heroin” article had good intentions. But let’s give parents some tools. Let’s show parents how powerful they really are. Let’s provide research-based tools that they can use to empower their kids to deal with negative media content when they encounter it.

Without further ado, here are several things parents need to know about the media:

  1. No matter how protective you are, no matter how good you are at using technology to block content, your children will be exposed to things you don’t want them to see. And some of that stuff will make you want to throw up. Some of that stuff will make you lose your faith in humanity. You know what I’m talking about. But despite your best efforts, your kids will see it.
  2. That does not mean all hope is lost. I once heard a phrase that several sources attribute to Martin Luther King, Jr., that goes like this: “You can’t keep a bird from landing on your head, but you can keep it from building a nest.” In media parenting terms, that means that you can’t protect your child from all media content, but you can keep it from sticking.
  3. In other words, if we really want to protect our children we need to quit focusing on protecting them and start making efforts to empower them. We need to give them the tools to deal with the media birds that will land on their head.

What are those tools? I recently wrote about 5 research-based media parenting habits that I think all parents should adopt. You can read a full description of each of those here, but in short, parents can start making a difference in their children’s media lives by:

  1. Changing your own media habits
  2. Using media together with your child
  3. Taking phones out of the bedroom at night
  4. Reading a book with your child
  5. Talking with your child about media

In sum, yes, media has an effect on kids. Sometimes in very powerful ways. We know that now. But let’s stop scaring parents and start empowering parents by offering solutions. The only way to help future generations is to change how the current generation of parents, well, parents. You can start by using social media to engage parents in positive conversations about what they can do. Beginning with sharing this article. You read this article, so I know you care. It’s time for us to start sharing what we know with parents everywhere.


  1. And let’s stop pretending that everything you do on a screen is created equal. Emailing your brother in another city, posting cat pictures on Facebook, watching educational tutorials on YouTube, and watching violent porn are all different and have different effects on the participant.

    I don’t any research to cite on this one, but common sense would suggest that some of these in large quantities might equate to the dreaded “digital heroin,” while other screen activities might not.

    Liked by 1 person

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