This post is a best of the best post on the topic of; the media as it relates to kids with special needs. Don't forget to check the BOB Site when it goes live on the 15th of June to read different perspectives from other blog authors.
** Parents please note - there are some concepts in this post which may offend or may be unsuitable for children **
Long time readers of this blog will know that I'm firmly opposed to censorship even in children but in some cases, it's in the child's best interests. If the child has special needs or issues which impact their understanding, then media censorship takes on additional meaning.
The bad effects of media on children can range from social gaffes all the way up to life-threatening behavior. Of course, like everything, media has a flip-side too and it can have many beneficial effects particularly for children with different learning styles.
How do you figure out what to block and what to allow through? How do you draw the line between providing a safe versus a sheltered environment? Can the media really be of benefit to your child's education or is it just a babysitting service? This post aims to address some of these questions.
What are we really Censoring?
It is hard to think that human bodies are such ugly things that the mere sight of reproductive organs could cause irreprable damage to a child and yet that's a view that many people hold. My own children aren't ashamed of their bodies and are not prudish in any way but they're at least beginning to understand that it is not OK for them to "flash around". At the same time, they understand that in order to get changed or have a shower, they will be naked at some point.
Logically, it doesn't make a great deal of sense to attempt to hide such a scene from a film. It's as natural as making ones own breakfast cereal. Add sex to the mix and suddenly it all changes - but why? What are we trying to stop?
If your child doesn't know about sex, then clearly we're trying to preserve our own "stork" or "cabbabge patch" mythology. If the concept of sex is familiar to them - and lets face it, they seem to be learning these things younger and younger from friends at school, then the censorship must be for another purpose.
Stick a mild sex scene under a blanket in front of children who know about sex and you're most likely to get a comment like "oh no, not boring sex! when are they going to get back to the car chase?". Sex which doesn't show any of the mechanics is simply just another boring "kissy" scene. To get defensive about it is to draw attention to it, better just to let it slip on by.
Show the mechanics however and that's where things begin to get problematic.
The fact is that most pre-children who "know all about sex" simply think that it's about naked cuddling. That's a good thing. Too much knowledge of a method makes it repeatable - and at that age, it's not a good thing.
It's easy to say; "this is a movie, the police don't really go around shooting people - so you can't do it in real life or you'll end up in jail".
Can you say the same thing about sex? Nope, not if you have children you can't. Apart from certain laws, consenting overage sex is legal but most parents don't want their children engaging in such activities as soon as it's legal.
In that respect, we're censoring two things, the concept and the mechanics - and we're censoring for a reason - to prevent our children from doing what they see.
Censoring repeatable acts makes sense but we censor a whole lot more than that both as parents and as a society. It's easy to suggest that an illegal event must not be repeated and that "it's only a story or it's only pretend". Usually experienced children will understand this.
Ask any child if it's alright to shoot someone and you'll generally get the right answers; No - yes, if it's a war or yes if they're trying to shoot you first. It's clear that past early ages, children seem to understand these concepts. If your child doesn't, then you need to make sure that they do before you allow them to see things that are repeatable.
The question is; should we censor "scaryness"?
Scaryness by itself is a good thing and people love to be scared. It's one of the reasons that horror films have always been so popular, it's why we have amusement parks and it's why Halloween is such an attractive concept. In Australia, we don't have halloween and yet my kids crave it because every kid in Australia knows about "halloween". On the other hand, no kid in Australia ever asks why we don't celebrate thanksgiving. Horror is fun. People love to be scared when they're safe.
There's a point however where scaryness tips over from "scary" into real life fear. That point is reached at different times by different children of various ages depending upon their previous exposure to fear.
My children have watched scary movies for years. It's common for us to watch "the making of" after a movie to see how they achieved certain effects. They've learned to spot actors and will cheerfully remind me that Mrs Doubtfire is also the dad in Hook, the guy in Flubber and the guy from Jumanji. This is good. They understand the separation between fiction and reality.
We've watched lots of different and scary films together, Zombieland, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Aliens, Predator and more.
You'll note that Halloween, Jaws, Poltergiest and Elm Street are not on that list. That's because I can't tell my children that murderers, sharks or even ghosts and dreams don't exist. Not 100% anyway. Those films could impact on their real lives and could cross the boundaries of fiction into real life. For that reason, they're no-go areas until my kids are old enough to feel safe.f
That's what we're really protecting, the child's general feelings of safety.
The Value of Media
Lots of people will try to tell you that fiction doesn't provide any benefit for children but they're wrong. Very, very wrong. Fiction provides some great "what if" scenarios and the best fiction teaches us moral lessons about ourselves. As a child, I learned a great deal of science and history from Doctor Who on television and in books. It served me well in class and I never had to refer to any of those "a day in the life of..." style non-fiction books. Children often learn more from fiction than from non-fiction simply because it's more engaging.
If you have a child with special needs, you'll find that they are often described as "very visual" or "picture thinkers". That's a sure sign that you should be exposing them to more television and movies. These kids learn by seeing and the visual aspect of TV will teach them better than any other teacher.
There are other types of special needs children too and some are described as "verbal thinkers". These types of thinkers learn better from books than from standard teaching methods. A third type of thinker is the mathemiatical/patterns child. These thinkers learn by patterns and problems. For them, it's possible that computer games are a better solution. I'm talking about complex computer games like Age of Empires - not Tetris.
Whatever your child's learning style, you'll often find that the media provides a better means of learning than the classroom can.
So far, we've defined safety as the removal of repeatable undesirable acts and the removal of fear which is too close for comfort. Is that enough? Probably. Does it mean that the media is safe? Definitely not.
When I was young, there was an excellent science programme called "the curiosity shop". It was like a kid's version of mythbusters and they often did experiments. One of their shows demonstrated an exciting experiment where baking soda was used to pop the cork off a bottle or jar. It encouraged me to go looking for the details in other kid's science books. All very safe huh? Of course, a few weeks later when my neighbour and I ran out of jars and built our next experiment in a full-size and half full cholorine drum it was very different. We survived but needed treatment and did a fair amount of property damage.
Is that the TV's fault? Probably not but it's clear that the concept came from there.
The Parent's Role in Relation to the Media
The media is a great distributor of ideas which and it plays a critical role in the education of children with special needs. Your child will learn much more from TV than they will from any of their teachers.
The way to make TV safer is not simply to pick and choose television viewing habits. It's also to make sure that you, as a parent are open and willing to discuss what you've just witnessed. Television, books, comics, songs and computer games should not be babysitters. You need to be present - at least occasionally.
The media is a gestation point for ideas - your job as a parent is to censor the dangerous ideas while ensuring that the morality and safety of the remaining ideas is well understood.