Does your family use media to deepen your connections with one another?

Study examines positive media experiences in families with adolescents.

Picture this – a family is at home and interacting separately with different kinds of media. Perhaps one parent is listening to the radio while getting dinner ready, while another watches a television program in a different room. Maybe one of the kids is using a smartphone to look up something related to a homework assignment (while simultaneously texting with friends), while another child plays a video game. Does this kind of scenario sound familiar?

Using news, entertainment and social media while alone can be valuable in helping family members connect with other people, learn about important topics, or just decompress after a hard day at work or school – and there are also benefits when families use media together. A study recently published in the Journal of Adolescent Research used interviews and surveys with adolescents (aged 13-16) and their parents to examine a variety of family media experiences. Although much of previous family media use research has focused on topics such as parental monitoring of a child’s media use or parent-child co-viewing of media, the authors of this study were interested in looking at how families use diverse kinds of media together in positive ways.

The study, which focused on families’ use of both entertainment media (such as television, movies, music and video games) and social media (including social networking sites as well as phone texting and calling), identified three key findings related to positive family media use:

  • ŸOver 90 percent of the teens and their parents reported that media use is part of their family traditions at least some of the time. For example, a family might watch a special movie every New Year’s Day, they might have a ritual of getting everyone together via Skype on family birthdays, or they might have an ongoing story about the time that one of their family members sent a text message using the wrong chat acronym. The authors stressed that media experiences connected to traditions and rituals can contribute to a positive sense of family identity and belonging, including creating unity between past and present generations.
  • About 80 percent of the adolescents and parents reported using media as a reward. While the authors stressed that using media as a reward might not always be a positive thing, using rewards that involve the entire family may have positive effects. An example might be working as a family to clean the house and then celebrating with a family movie night.
  • Although about 82 percent of parents reported using the media to talk about serious issues, nearly half of the teens said that their families never did this. The authors pointed out that the parents may have overstated their use of media to do this, or that teens may not have been aware of times when parents initiated these kinds of discussions.

The study also showed that families use the media in positive ways to meet different kinds of interpersonal and familial needs. These included using media for entertainment, such as watching television or movies together, which teens and parents said was enjoyable and brought them closer. Many families reported using media together for information purposes, including learning together about “real world” topics such as current news, animals and the earth, and other cultures. Families also reported using media (such as phone calls and texting, photo-sharing and Skype) to build emotional communication and connection and using media (particularly entertainment media) as a catalyst for discussion with one another about difficult topics and serious issues. Finally, many adolescents and parents talked about the positive value of using media as documentation for family life and events. This included things like taking and sharing photographs via cell phones, creating online photo albums and using video cameras to document events that could be watched together in the future.

When thinking about family media experiences – particularly those involving entertainment forms of media, some experts stress the need for young people and adults to consider how media messages can influence how they think about themselves and other people. Developing media literacy skills can help young people and adults use key questions to deconstruct media messages. Adults who are looking to use different kinds of media experiences as a catalyst for discussions with young people may benefit by doing some important self-reflection to guide and inform these kinds of conversations.

Michigan State University Extension provides opportunities for adults to learn more about the role of media in the lives of young people – including ways that media messages are linked to issues of bullying, bias and harassment. These efforts are part of the Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments initiative, which includes a curriculum designed to help adults and youth work in partnership to create positive relationships and settings that are free of bullying and other hurtful behaviors.

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