Do you sometimes wish you could present this ultimatum to your teen? "No television, no movie theatres, no Internet, no smartphones, no CDs, no magazines and no books!"

As much as you may want to prevent immoral content entering your teenager’s hemisphere, a long list of media no-nos will undoubtedly provoke your teen to retaliate – with his own list of nos! After all, no teen likes overly restrictive rules; since teens long to be recognized for their growing maturity, they often interpret rules as an insult. And though well-intended, parental sanctions around media don’t necessarily help "train-up a teen in the way they should go" when the parent is no longer around.

Here’s an alternative "media strategy" for parents that helps build up, rather than erode, your relationship with your teen. The goal of this approach is to win your child’s allegiance and cooperation through open dialogue that both flatters and empowers your teen. Instead of waging a divisive "no media" battle against your teen, you work with your adolescent to help them "know media" through a Biblical lens.

Encourage the movie critic within

When it comes to media discernment, it’s imperative that you encourage and sharpen your teen’s critical thinking skills. Fortunately, normal childhood development is on your side! Between the ages of 12 and 18 – according to pioneering psychologist Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development – an adolescent channels tremendous energy into developing personal identity. You’re simply making the most of your son or daughter’s fiercely embraced prerogative to think for themself!

To think critically doesn’t necessarily mean to criticize though. In academia today, critical thinking means to reflect on and weigh content against beliefs and values to determine its validity and message. The most powerful persuasion occurs in the absence of critical thought, "when somebody doesn’t even know they’re being persuaded," warns Sean McDowell, an apologetics and world view expert.

Your task then, is to first help your teen realize they will be manipulated unless they turn on their mind when they turn on their media!

Second, you’ll want to encourage your child to evaluate the messages they are seeing and hearing in light of what God says on the same topics. In this, you’re shooting for a much higher goal than compliance: to see your teen motivated by a desire to please God is far superior to seeing your teen simply pleasing you (by following your rules).

Make it about "What would Jesus do?"

Among many compelling reasons why you would want your child to approach media asking WWJD? (What would Jesus do?) rather than WWPD? (What would parent do?), here’s one practical reason to consider: parental standards, as a whole, don’t provide a reliable or clearly-defined benchmark. As culture changes, rating systems shift and PG no longer has the same implication that it did 20 years ago. But the command in Romans 12:9 to "hate what is evil" is timeless. Don’t cheat your child by distorting the sacred practice of media discernment into a secular one. Bob Smithouser, senior editor of media-review site Pluggedin.ca, encourages media consumers to be "always processing what we see and hear through the filter of God's unchanging Word," not through the filter of parental preference.

How do you bring your child to that place where they approach media asking, WWJD? There’s no guarantee of success, but here are some helpful ideas to get you started.

  • Model media discernment. One step toward discernment, says Smithouser, is for your teen to "understand and take ownership of the godly media standards" you model. Even though you meet a film’s 14A rating, that doesn’t mean you’ll be edified by its content (1 Corinthians 6:12)! Strive to model spiritual standards for your teen, so they know that content, rather than a secular rating system, determines media merit.

    If you've not yet modelled right discernment, humbly apologize to your teen. He or she will respect you for you honesty and empathize with you as you amend your habits. As a bonus, growing in media discernment with your teen makes a great bonding opportunity!

  • Listen, listen and listen some more. Sit down for a heart-to-heart conversation to ask your daughter about her media habits. What does she like? Why? "Be careful not to overact," Waliszewski urges. "Listen, listen, listen." Instead of telling your daughter what the Bible or Pluggedin.ca says about an album, encourage her to read the resources and tell you what she finds.

    When talking is tough, write instead. According to Waliszewski, a letter, email or text allows you "time to sort through your thoughts," and gives your teen "time to respond instead of reacting defensively." Win, win!

  • Explore hidden agendas. "Entertainment communicates the beliefs and agendas of those who create it," says Smithouser. But Colossians 2:8 warns Christians not to let people spoil faith and joy with shallow, human philosophies. Discuss film stakeholders, marketing strategies (e.g., "sex sells") and political motivations with your son, and suggest researching the lives and associations of media makers. Conveniently, films on DVD and Blu-ray often come with special features and behind-the-scenes extras. Watch the director's commentary with your teen and discuss how the movie maker acocunts for certain production choices (e.g., set design and camera angle). As your son wades through world view wonderings, encourage him to "screen the influencers behind the screen" by questioning the whos, whats and whys.

    Initiate discussions of power and identity, as these topics resonate with your teen’s strong sense of justice, Mark Gregston, director of Heartlight youth ministry, advises.1 Once a teen understands they’re being "duped for the sake of commerce," they’re more apt to acknowledge the differences between real life and misleading media, he says. With this in mind, as your son identifies the hypocrisy of media’s glamorization of sin, he’ll awaken awareness to media’s underlying agenda. To illustrate, Gregston asserts your teen can agree that "cheating, lying and sexual promiscuity all lead to mistrust, loss of self-respect, and heartache, not prestige and reward."

  • Fast from media. Cleanse your hearts and minds from the "toxins" you and your family have grown habituated to, challenges Phillip Telfer, founder of Media Talk 101.2 As a family, abstain from television, movies and music for a week – or two! Plan some fun activities – such as board games, festivals or sports – to fill the extra time.

    Removing exposure to objectionable media launches a "resensitization" process. Sensitivities to sinful content are reset; tastes, transformed; and cravings, curbed. A foul word spoken on the big screen will strike the ear and heart more sharply than before the media break. Rebellious lyrics will no longer be relevant. Cravings for adrenaline-spiking violent scenes will begin to abate.

  • Purge the spiritual poison. One tactic to avoid indulging in junk food is to not keep chips, chocolate and cheesecake in the house. The rationale? If you don’t stock unhealthful munchies at arm’s reach, you won’t eat them handfuls at a time. The same goes for media! Toss the trash films and garbage albums. Consider buying the objectionable content from your teen to illustrate how much you value purity, even at a cost. Then stock up on positive, genuine entertainment. For your teen, "intimately knowing what is genuine helps them more easily discern what’s fake," Gregston says.

  • Question the values. Model an active mind by speaking back to the TV: "This film makes the pastor character look like a wimp. That seems biased to me." According to McDowell, "every song in the background, every piece of clothing somebody’s wearing, even the lighting" communicates something. Talk with your teen about underlying messages:

    • Who is the target audience?
    • What ideas are the producers encouraging the audience to consider? Who benefits?
    • What purpose does that scene serve? Is the purpose noble or evil, healthy or destructive?

  • Define the lines and locations. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation study, 45 per cent of eight to 18-year-olds say that a TV is almost always on in their home, regardless of whether anyone is purposely watching it.3 Intentional or not, however, your family hears voices in the background and sees images in the periphery. To limit passive consumption, define the line between on and off. Decide what you’ll view before you turn on the tube instead of leaving your media diet up to the cable channel.

    Also, keep all media use to an open and central room, such as the kitchen or family room. Consider not allowing laptops, smartphones and televisions in bedrooms. For homework and phone calls, provide your students an alternative, quiet place to concentrate.

  • Prepare through prayer. Admittedly, your young person can access whatever media is available on the Internet – which is a lot! But don’t worry; pray! As you prepare your teen for this onslaught, earnestly pray for them, for you and for media makers.

    • Pray for your hearts to be broken by the sins that break God’s heart.
    • Pray for your minds to be active when consuming media.
    • Pray for God’s grace to stand up for pure choices amidst peer persecution.
    • Pray for media makers to produce edifying and truth-filled content.

Wading through media is daunting. But with the right approach, Smithouser remains optimistic that you and your teen can find God’s truth in "unlikely places, including entertainment, and use it for personal enrichment."


For more help, check out Bob Waliszewski’s book, Plugged-In Parenting, available from Focus on the Family Canada’s online bookstore.

1. See Mark Gregston’s online article "Media discernment for teens" at Heartlightministries.org.
2. See "What is a media fast?" at Mediatalk101.org.
3. For a full report on the study, see "Generation M2: Media in the lives of 8- to 18-year olds" at Kff.org.

Reference to the individuals and organizations quoted does not constitute a blanket endorsement of either the individuals’ external work or their respective organizations.

© 2013 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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