Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Are our larvae old enough to watch the news?

Hey caterpillars,

My 316 professor, Crystal Mueller, and the peer reviewers who read my methodology draft brought up some interesting points about my targeted age group (15- to 22-year-olds) for observation. Why, they asked, am I looking at civic/political engagement attitudes in people who are too young to vote, people who are possibly too young to know what engagement is? Isn't there a huge developmental difference between being 15 and being 22? And how many parents do not allow their kids to even watch the news before age 13 or 14?

I'd like to let my blog readers (all three of you) know that my purpose in looking at attitudes of people who are too young to vote or do much in their communities is to possibly compare the reasons young adults give for disengagement with the reasons reported in surveys of 20- and 30-somethings. I suspect that if negative (or positive) attitudes toward civic engagement are cultivated during one's formative years, those attitudes will stick around well after that person turns 18 and will impact that person's civic and political activites. I once read an article that found that if you pick a party affiliation in your teens, you're extremely likely to affiliate with that party the rest of your life. Grllgghhh...I'll have to rummage around for that article, because it would illustrate my point beautifully.

The other clod I've been chewing on is the fact that some parents do not allow their children to watch the news at all until the kids are older, like 10, 12, or 14 or something. I once knew a girl in high school whose parents wouldn't let her watch any R-rated movies until she was 18, but I don't gather that that's the norm. In my observations, I have not yet encountered any comments along the lines of "I wouldn't know about that; my parents don't let me watch the news." It's possible that kids may not want to admit they are under such a restriction so they post uninformed comments about news items. It's possible that kids who are under a news restriction do not even bother clicking on forums or threads that clearly contain political items. It's also possible that parents who enforce news restrictions do not allow their kids to surf the Web freely and to even find, much less comment on, sites like the four I'm observing.

A few days ago, for funsies, I consulted a couple parenting forums that discussed at what age it is appropriate for a child to watch the nightly news. Of course, there is a HOT, HOT debate about this. Some say kids need to know that "life isn't unicorns and rainbows," others say kids aren't developmentally ready for the kind of stress that news brings (this was often accompanied by comments like "I'm 39 and I find the news stressful!"). Others say they let their kids listen to NPR only and not the "sloppy, sensational, gore-filled entertainment junk" shown on the local news (e.g. "Coming up next, how your toothpaste can kill you!"). Others add that parents should always watch the news with their kids and discuss the unpleasant things they see/hear there, while others say, "If my kid needs to know about something important going on in the world, I'll tell him/her myself."

This brought to my mind articles I've read in TIME and Newsweek about "helicopter moms" and "free range kids" and the "Mean World Syndrome" and the American preference to view children as "innocent," but then the question is how much of this is significantly influencing my research. All life issues are part of this huge tangly web where everything bumps into everything else and irritates it, and there are no clear or consistent push-button variables.

When I met with Crystal Thursday, I mentioned that this is a whole other can of worms--and really its own research topic--and also wondered what kinds of kids beg their parents to watch the news but the parents don't let them? When I was knee high to a grasshopper, I distinctly recall thinking the news was the most boring thing in the world. When it came on, that was my cue to start daydreaming. About unicorns and rainbows, natch.