I do not watch much television. By the time I reach the end of the day and the dishes are done, the dog walked, and laundry folded, my bed is a more favorable option than trying to stay awake for a program.
My television habits took an unexpected turn several years ago, when looking for an opportunity to spend more one on one with my high school son, I jumped at the chance when he suggested we watch a popular Netflix series together. Not long after our first series was complete, Covid struck, providing us with time to check out several other programs together. Watching several series from various platforms opened my eyes to not only the considerable access he has to content, but also the surprising amount of drug use and sexual acts included in the content he has so readily available. Several times I interrupted our viewing by shouting out “that isn’t true!” or “that isn’t what really goes on in high school!”. In response, each time he would give me an exasperated look, and reply, “I KNOW!” but I always wondered if he truly did.
According to a 2020 study by the Truth Initiative, teen weekly streaming increased 66% from 2018-2019. While this statistic is not entirely surprising as people spent more on time at home due to Covid, the increase in viewing was concerning as 73% of the top 15 shows in 2019 included substance abuse exposure. To complicate matters further, sexual acts and drug use are often normalized in popular teen and young adult programming. These programs often omit realistic consequences of making such choices. While adults can discern between fact and fiction, fantasy and reality, teenagers do not yet have a developed prefrontal cortex to fully evaluate decisions and the consequences that may follow.
As a parent, I found myself with the unexpected opportunity to aid my teenager in sifting through what was real and what was not during our television time together. In the course of our discussions, his thoughts and feedback provided an invaluable glimpse into how he was interpreting what we were watching.
Below are several tips that come from Dr. Aaron Weiner, substance abuse specialist’s, 2021 presentation “Sex, Drugs and Netflix” on how to manage the amount of content your children see, how to assist them in their interpretations and how family values, attitudes and expectations play into their decision making.
- Make sure your values and rules are known.
Contrary to what parents & guardians may believe, a strong predictor of youth behavior comes from your attitudes and expectations. Having conversations early rather than later with children equips them with these attitudes and understanding before a choice needs to be made.
- Limit Exposure
Set and hold boundaries. Some kids will find ways around firewalls, but it is still a smart idea to utilize parental controls on devices. At home, designate media free homework time. Turning off phones, tablets, and television an hour before bedtime not only limits exposure but allows the teenage brain an opportunity to relax and maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle. These boundaries may not always be met with enthusiasm or compliance, but it is important to remain firm on boundaries and remain consistent.
- Communicate with L.O.V.E
When kids see the adults in their life as emotionally safe people, they are more likely to have an open dialogue. Building this type of communication may take time. Remain persistent and do not become discouraged. The L.O.V. E technique is a positive way to build that open dialogue and can be applied to various types of conversations.
Seek first to understand where kids are at. Why do they select the content they view? Who do they relate to in the program and why? By asking open ended questions you can begin to understand and identify why they are drawn to certain forms of content. You do not have to agree with everything your teen says, but you do want to make sure they know they are being heard.
How you offer your guidance and feedback is critical. While adults have more knowledge and understanding of consequences associated with drug use and sexual acts, teenagers do not want to feel lectured. Asking for the opportunity to offer feedback changes the dynamic, placing them in charge of the conversation. Asking for their reaction to what you have shared will also provide a window into how they receive what you have contributed.
Validate that what they are feeling is ok and is normal. Also important is reaffirming again and again that you are a safe adult, meaning they can share their thoughts and feelings with you and won’t be judged or punished for it.
The teens years are hard to navigate. By sharing with your teenager that you know what it is like and that you have been there before, it helps them recognize that you have visibility into their world and that they are heard and understood.
Teenagers are impressionable. It is important to keep in mind that these years are ones in which they are trying to develop identities and find relatable characters in their content. As parents, we may not have complete control over the content they select and the amount they consume, but we do have an invaluable opportunity to shape their understanding and engagement.
Written by: Susan Foley-Health Educator, Candor Health Education
- Truth Initiative. While You Were Streaming. 2018
- Truth Initiative. While You Were Streaming: Smoking on Demand. 2019
- Fuhrer B. Streaming TV Update: Key Trends During COVID. ARF Virtual Town Hall Series: The ARF. 2020. What Behaviors Will Stay After the Crisis Passes? (Event Summary) – The ARF
- Weiner, Dr. A., 2021, Sex Drugs ad Netflix, Parenting Strategies: How to Talk about Drug Use in Popular Media. https://youtu.be/op2TbVIYhDc