Friday, June 15, 2012

How To Really Love a Child

Here is another list of advice that I've had so long that I don't remember where I got it. And, like last week's similar post, there is no author included with my copy, so I can't give credit to anyone for this.

To me, this poetic list encourages us parents to slow down, to enjoy the moment, to connect and make eye contact, and to have kindness in our hearts for our children. I've taken the liberty to highlight a few of my favorite lines. I hope you enjoy it.



How to Really Love a Child

Be there.
Say yes as often as possible.
Let them bang on pots and pans.
If they are crabby, put them in water.
If they’re unlovable, love yourself.
Realize how important it is to be a child.
Go to a movie theater in your pajamas.
Read books out loud with joy.
Remember how really small they are.
Giggle a lot.
Surprise them.
Say no when necessary.
Teach feelings.
Heal your own inner child.
Learn about parenting.
Hug trees together.
Make loving safe.
Bake a cake and eat it with no hands.
Go find elephants and kiss them.
Plan to build a rocket ship.
Imagine yourself magic.
Make lots of forts with blankets.
Let your angel fly.
Reveal your own dreams.
Search out the positive.
Keep the gleam in your eye.
Mail a letter to God.
Encourage silly.
Plant licorice in your garden.
Open up.
Stop yelling.
Express your love, a lot.
Speak kindly.
Paint their tennis shoes.
Handle with caring.

Children are miraculous!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Preventing Smart Phone Injuries

I remember a long time ago, a new term popped up called "Nintendo Thumb." It referenced a condition that befell kids who played too many video games and hurt their thumbs with constant joy stick use. Gaming systems in the home were new, and an injury sustained by gaming on the living room couch seemed preposterous. The grown-ups in my life shook their heads and laughed at the news, as if to say, Dumb kids.

But with the advancement of home computing and personal devices that go with us everywhere, conditions similar to Nintendo Thumb are now pervasive for all ages, and the concept of injuries caused by gadgets is no longer a novelty.

Take smart phones. The American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc. (AOTA) has dedicated a PDF tip sheet for preventing injuries related to smart phone use. Some possible conditions and prevention tips from the AOTA include:
  • Smart phone thumb. This is pain or soreness in your wrist or at the base of your thumb from the "awkward positioning of your hands and thumbs while typing." Prevention includes typing shorter messages, limiting time spent typing on your phone, and giving your digits a rest.
  • Cell phone elbow. This is "tingling and numbness into your little finger and possible weakness of your hand." It's caused by persistent bending of your elbow while holding the phone to your ear. Prevention includes changing hands while using the phone, using a speaker phone or a hands-free device. (Side note: I bought the RocketFish Mobile Hands-Free Headset for other reasons, and it works well.)
  • Cell phone neck. Pain and spasms in your neck and shoulder muscles can be caused by tilting your head and raising your shoulder to stabilize your phone. Like cell phone elbow, using a speaker phone or a hands-free device will prevent this as well.
  • PDA nails. Believe it or not, your nails can become "misshapen and ridged" from prolonged keyboard typing. Using the pad of your finger, not the tip, can help prevent this.
  • Cellular blindness. Looking at a small screen for long periods of time can cause severely dry eyes. It helps to look away from your screen every 20 minutes and to use proper corrective lenses. (I can no longer use contact lenses because of dry eyes, and now I wonder if I'm forever in glasses because of my crazy long hours - and years - in front of a computer screen.)
  • Smart phone fog. "Symptoms include putting yourself and others in danger by using your smart phone while driving or walking." Don't text while walking or driving, and use a hands-free device when talking on your phone.
When I first got my smart phone last year, I carried it around in my left hand - a lot. The base of my thumb started aching mysteriously. It finally hit me that it was caused by holding my thumb in the same position, arched back away from my other fingers, to hold my phone. My smart phone did so many more things than my old phone, and as a result, I was holding it and using it all the time. I think I officially had the beginning of smart phone thumb. Dumb kid!

I find it so interesting that personal gadgets promise more convenience and efficiency in our daily lives, and yet without proper balance, they can cultivate a whole set of other physical and psychological afflictions never experienced before.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Lone Ranger Mom

I went to a party a few weeks ago for a retiring elementary school teacher where I met several other teachers and the president of our school's PTO (Parent-Teacher Organization).

I was especially happy to meet the PTO President. Almost immediately, I asked her if she'd be interested in supporting a Screen-Free Week campaign at our school next year. Fortunately, she loved the idea, and it looks like I've taken the first step in seeing that local event realized in the spring of 2013!

I also had an interesting conversation with another parent and a school counselor. The mother bemoaned that her seventh grade son keeps badgering her for a TV in his room. He argues that all of his friends have TVs in their rooms, so why can't he? So far, she has not allowed it. But the squabbles continue.

The school counselor sympathized, citing the strong affinity that kids have for their own devices. She acknowledged that one of the toughest argument for a parent to stand up to is the old "But Johnny's parents let him do it" or "Jimmy's parents don't have any rules about it."

I guess I'm lucky. I haven't had any similar arguments with my kids. I have young elementary school kids who don't ask for devices. I haven't yet introduced them to many video games or an iPad. They each have an mp3 player, but I only put a few songs on them, and the girls don't know that you can download any song imaginable. Personal devices aren't allowed in school, so they've also had limited exposure to them outside of the home. (Even though they aren't allowed, my daughter's second grade teacher had to reprimand class parents twice this year for letting students bring phones to school.)

But I'm not naive. Eventually my kids will want a phone or other device to feel connected with their friends, and I can understand that. So soon it'll be time to consider our household rules regarding devices. Will I let my kids bring their cell phones to the dinner table? Take their cell phones to bed with them? Let them have a TV in their bedroom? I hope the answer to these questions is no.

There's a good chance that my kids will grumble because their friends don't have similar household rules. Several studies indicate that a lot of kids have a TV in their bedroom: 42% of kids ages 0-8 (Common Sense Media), 67% of kids ages 2-13 (Clinical Pediatrics), and as many as 70% of third-graders have a TV in their room (New York Times). To add to this, only 30% of kids have media rules in the home. In the face of these stats, and stats on other key family media issues, parents who say "no" may feel like the Lone Ranger.

For me, that's OK; I've never aspired to be the popular girl anyway. I may be on the road less traveled, but I do know this: Although I make a lot of mistakes as a parent, keeping my young girls relatively free from excessive amounts of TV, movies, and games is something that I'm convinced is the right thing to do.

In time, my kids will be introduced to more media and their own personal devices. But first I want them to learn that it's OK to be bored, and that they're creative enough to find something to play. I want them to be active. I also want them to be mature enough to understand the pros and cons of it all, to never assume that we have to embrace each value put forth by the mainstream media, tech developers, or other parents.

And hopefully, with open communication and clear expectations, the transition will be an easy one for all of us.

Or I may be in for a big surprise.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Sherry Turkle's Message to Families

Sherry Turkle
Photo: Richard Howard
,

MIT Spectrum
I have a new favorite person: Sherry Turkle. She's a sociologist and psychologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, directing the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self.

Author of the thought-provoking book called Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Dr. Turkle has spent years studying the interaction between computers and people, or as she calls it, "the subjective side of technology." She's also been featured in news and media outlets a lot lately (see a partial article list below).

I believe parents should evaluate their priorities and determine if technology is helping - or interfering - with what's really important for their families.  Dr. Turkle's research and messages put substance behind the value of doing this. Last night, I listened to a recording of an interview with Sherry Turkle by Krista Tippitt with the "On Being" program through American Public Media. There were so many wonderful takeaways for parents.

Dr. Turkle encourages everyone, including parents, to have "sacred spaces" in the home for technology. As I interpret it, families should have a place where the cell phones, lap tops and other devices are not allowed. For instance, the dinner table, which is one place your family should not have to "compete with the roar of the Internet" for your attention.

Photo: Lauren Randolph/Flickr
from "Alive Enough?
Reflecting on Our Technology"

She challenges parents to put down their phones for a few minutes to take their children to the park or the coffee shop, and give them undivided attention. Watch them attentively as they "perform" for you at the playground, climbing on equipment and hoping you'll notice them. Look them in the eye when they get off the bus at school, and listen when they want to tell you about their day.

Teach your kids how to be alone, to appreciate times of solitude when they aren't connected to people through devices . She says, "If you don’t teach your children how to be alone, they only know how to be lonely.”

I'm guilty. I carry my phone everywhere, check my email too frequently (in an effort to keep my inbox under control), and yes, at times it does interfere with my communication with my kids. My husband and I definitely let it interfere with our connection. But kids deserve a meaningful connection with their parents, and moreover, they're learning from our modeled behavior. They'll get their own phones soon enough, and I don't want to compete with the gadgets for attention and connection with my kids.

Dr. Turkle is performing a wonderful public service through her work. I hope her messages will be taken to heart within our families.


More interviews and articles featuring Sherry Turkle:

Alone Together: So Busy Communicating We Neglect Each Other, MIT Spectrum
The Flight from Conversation, New York Times
Mobile Devices Offer 'Seductive' Fantasy, a video clip at CNN.com
Sherry Turkle: Connected, but Alone?, video at TED.com

Thursday, June 7, 2012

What is an Active Couch Potato?

Kevin Mingora
Allentown Morning Call, MCT
According to Office-Ergo.com, a portal for information on office ergonomics, active couch potatoes are "exercisers who sit most of the day." Americans sit for an average of eight hours a day (working at our computers, for instance), with some of us running off to the gym for a daily workout. While the exercise may improve our overall fitness, it doesn't cancel out certain negative health effects caused by sitting.

Those negative health effects can be summarized as a kind of "metabolic syndrome," in which certain cellular enzymes that metabolize fats and sugars become inactive when we sit for 60 to 90 minutes. The result: "lack of movement and low enzyme activity contribute to weight gain, diabetes and a reduction in HDL- the good cholesterol."

Studies show impact of prolonged sitting

In a recent New York Times blog post called "Meet the Active Couch Potato," Gretchen Reynolds highlights two studies that focused on this phenomenon. In one, researchers in Australia analyzed "medical records and lifestyle questionnaires of 220,000 Australian adults 45 and over." The study found that "the more hours the men and women sat every day, the greater their chance of dying prematurely" - even if the study participants exercised.

Another study in Finland used special electromyography equipment to measure the muscle activity of volunteers. They found that overall muscle activity, and sitting time, remained relatively unchanged even when participants exercised. Reynolds writes:
Surprisingly, how much people exercised or what kind of exercise they chose did not change sitting time. Whether volunteers worked out for less than an hour or for more than 90 minutes, they spent an equivalent amount of time the rest of the day being mostly torpid physically.
According to Dr. Taija Juutinen Finni, who spearheaded the research, the results "suggest that normal exercise, which fills so few hours of even active people’s days, may not be enough in terms of health."

My story

I'm definitely an active couch potato. I used to sit in an uncomfortable office chair for up to 12 hours a day, taking rare breaks, and heading to the gym directly after work. I suffered from significant back pain that was alleviated only by taking prescription pain meds. Interestingly, my doctors never suggested that my back pain could be related to my office environment. But when I started a family and took extended maternity leave, it was clear that prolonged sitting at my computer was intricately related to my problems, as my back pain disappeared altogether (along with my gym attendance).

I'm now back at a computer and desk, and I try to exercise 30 minutes most days. While the number of sitting hours have decreased significantly compared to my original job, I still sit for large blocks of time. Of course, my back pain has returned (though thankfully not with as much severity).

Making changes

To begin breaking free of "active couch potato" status, sit in a more ergonomically correct manner. If you can't afford an ergonomic office chair, consider sitting on an exercise ball. I've found that it has helped me a great deal. (Of course, check with your doctor first.) Also, get up and move as often as possible. Standing, walking, or even moderate leg exercises at least once an hour is advised. Getting a more active job might not always be possible, but it could help.

We also need to consider the impact that sitting has on our kids, who sit for long periods of time at school and often at home. Remember, it's not enough anymore to think of prolong sitting as being back on your back, neck and shoulders. Important metabolic activities and general health is at stake, too.



For more information: 
"PhysEd: The Men Who Stare at Screens" by Gretchen Reynolds, New York Times blog post

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

100 Things to Do With a Toddler



Wondering what you can do with a toddler, besides turn on the TV? Sometimes a parent or caretaker could use a little inspiration to make time with a toddler more fun - and memorable.

I've had this list for so long that I can't remember where I got it. There is no author on my copy, so I can't give credit to anyone. Enjoy!
  1. Color
  2. Blow bubbles
  3. Play Hide-and-Seek
  4. Peek-a-Boo  
  5. Play chase
  6. Do fingerplays
  7. Sing a song
  8. Collect rocks in a basket
  9. Make an obstacle course out of cushions and/or furniture
  10. Make a fort out of cushions and sheets  
  11. Go for a walk
  12. Make a car out of a box
  13. Read a book
  14. Go to the park
  15. Fingerpaint
  16. Play with Play-Dough
  17. Toss bean bags into a bucket
  18. Play the shell and pea game  
  19. Dance to music  
  20. Practice putting things in and taking things out of boxes and bags  
  21. Make a temporary slide out of a table leaf and your couch  
  22. Roll a ball back and forth on the floor  
  23. Scoop dirt or sand into a child's bucket (or use a serving spoon and bowl)  
  24. Practice climbing by stacking boxes on top of each other (only with adult supervision)  
  25. Put on a puppet show  
  26. Go fishing with a yard stick and yarn  
  27. Make a horseshoe game  
  28. Make a shape puzzle  
  29. Play paper basketball  
  30. Run through a sprinkler  
  31. Play with a bucket of water and a sponge (PLEASE WATCH CHILD AT ALL TIMES!)  
  32. Make a drum out of an oatmeal box
  33. Play with a kazoo  
  34. Wash windows together  
  35. Bang on pots and pans with a spoon  
  36. Brush each other's teeth  
  37. Play dress-up with stuffed animals and your child's clothes  
  38. Stack canned or boxed food on top of each other  
  39. Let child stack mixing bowls inside each other  
  40. Make a playhouse out of a large box
  41. Let child play with a sticker sheet (make sure your child doesn't eat them!)  
  42. Put stickers on fingers for finger puppets  
  43. Play a musical instrument together- i.e.recorder, piano, etc.  
  44. Go on a smelling hunt  
  45. Frost cookies
  46. Plant a flower or vegetable plant together  
  47. Roll a tennis ball into an empty trash can or bucket  
  48. Draw on a mirror with dry-erase markers  
  49. Play hide and seek together- trying to find a stuffed animal or other object  
  50. Have a splash party together in the kiddie pool
  51. Put a leash on a stuffed animal and walk around the house  
  52. Record each other on a tape recorder (great for scrapbooks or journals!)  
  53. Make and try on paper hats
  54. Give a piggie back ride
  55. Play "Horsie"
  56. Talk into an electric fan (it distorts your voice)
  57. Play tug-of-war with a blanket
  58. Collect flowers (felt, artificial, real...)
  59. Make a camera and go on a Safari
  60. Play games with frozen juice lids
  61. Disconnect your phone and pretend to make phone calls to relatives
  62. Leave your phone connected and really make phone calls to relatives- let your child talk too
  63. String large beads onto or along a shoelace
  64. Squirt each other with squirt bottles
  65. Glue shapes onto paper
  66. Make sock puppets
  67. Make paper puppets
  68. Fill an old purse with toys
  69. Use a paper towel tube as a megaphone
  70. Make binoculars and go "Bird Watching" or "Stuffed Animal Watching"  
  71. Put snacks in different fun containers (paper sacks, empty canisters, etc.) 
  72. Act out a story from a book
  73. Walk on a balance beam- use a 2x4 placed on the ground  
  74. Draw with chalk on the sidewalk  
  75. Sketch an outline of your child on the sidewalk or paper with chalk  
  76. Paint child's palms with tempura paint and blot on paper. Makes a great card for loved ones!
  77.  Put lipstick on child and kiss a mirror  
  78. Make a puddle on cement and splash barefoot in it  
  79. Let child decorate and eat an open peanut butter sandwich  
  80. Make a toilet paper barricade for child to go under, over, or through  
  81. Do the Hokey Pokey
  82. Make a super-hero costume out of household items  
  83. Do knee-bouncing rhymes  
  84. Play "Red Light, Green Light" saying "Go" and "Stop"  
  85. Make a shoebox train for stuffed animals  
  86. Make a pillow pile to jump on (keep it clear from any hard surfaces, including walls!)  
  87. Make an easy puzzle with felt and velcro  
  88. Make bracelets or collars for stuffed animals out of pipe cleaners and jingle bells  
  89. Learn numbers from a deck of cards  
  90. Play the matching game with a deck of cards  
  91. Make a domino chain  
  92. Have a picnic in the park, backyard, or living room!  
  93. Play dress up in Mommy or Daddy's clothes  
  94. Make a tin cup telephone and talk to each other in it  
  95. Make a nature collage  
  96. Mirror each other  
  97. Make a "Mummy Mommy" with toilet paper  
  98. Make a tape recording of short music selections and instructions to move in different ways
  99. Make and walk along a toilet paper trail  
  100. TAKE A NAP!!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Facebook Plans Accounts for Kids

Facebook just can't get out of the news - and off parents' backs. The latest: the company is considering allowing children under 13 to join the mammoth social network.

Consumer Reports says that 7.5 million children under the age of 13 have an account, including five million under age 10. The Wall Street Journal conducted its own study, and found that nearly 20% of kids under age 10 use Facebook. With these numbers climbing, and with recent criticism about cyberbullying, privacy violations and the ease at which an underage child can join Facebook (just lie about your birth date), the company says it's been forced to consider exploring ways that children can join the site. According to the company, it's developing a new system to help parents better supervise accounts for kids under 13.

The Wall Street Journal had this to say about the potential changes:
"...Child advocates opposed the idea, saying that Facebook should instead focus on explaining to parents and children that the site isn't appropriate for use by children under 13.
"We don't have the proper science and social research to evaluate the potential pros and cons that social-media platforms are doing to teenagers," said James Steyer, chief executive of Common Sense Media, a child-advocacy group based in San Francisco. "The idea that you would go after this segment of the audience when there are concerns about the current audience is mind boggling."
The reason Facebook has an age minimum of 13 is that the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) prohibits the collection of personal information from anyone under the age of 13 unless they adhere to specific FCC guidelines. It's certainly not because Facebook is thinking about the interests of a child. In fact, Mark Zuckerberg has been publicly said that he believes children under 13 should be allowed to use Facebook. The company has even admitted that it's spent $650,000 in the first quarter in lobbying related to COPPA.

No, it's all about the money. According to the Wall Street Journal, the company is pressured to continue its revenue growth.  The solution? Widen the nets; allow more people to join. The entertainment industry has been eagerly awaiting news that Facebook will allow more kids to join, no doubt because it opens a new frontier for peddling games, toys, and junk food - and for collecting marketing data.

The cynic in me fully expects that Facebook will eventually win this one. When you pit a child's well-being against the markets, it's kind of like pitting David against Goliath - without giving David a slingshot. Enough pressure, dollar bills and time will eventually erode common sense. Corporations like Facebook will hide behind their common public incantation: "It's up to the parent to decide what's best for the child," knowing full well that parents can't be everywhere at every moment, and that not every parent makes the right decision every time.

I can only hope that child advocacy organizations continue to get the funding that they deserve to raise awareness of the pitfalls that will result from these potential changes with Facebook - and with the other networks that will surely follow the social network's footsteps.

More articles on the subject, all citing the Wall Street Journal article:
Facebook Plans To End the 'No Kids Under 13' Farce (Forbes)
Facebook may let kids under 13 join with parent's help (USA Today)

Monday, June 4, 2012

Should Kids Have a TV in Their Bedrooms?

Nola Lopez / Copyright:
2008 The New York Times Company
I did a Google search for the question: Should a child have a TV in his room? The results showed that many parents are asking this question to online advisers, parent experts and peers. One site, which promotes itself as providing "clear answers" gives an decidedly gray answer: there are pros and cons to putting the tube in your child's bedroom. Curious about the pros, I read the entire article. At the end of the article was the lone "pro:" Some parents prefer to set rules and trust their children to follow them since they can't be constantly supervised.

I disagree. Sure, some kids can be trusted, but why put the temptation in front of them?

The reasons to keep the TV out of a child's bedroom are more vast and compelling. According to a New York Times article by Tara Parker-Pope, Kids with a TV in the bedroom:
  • Score lower on all kinds of academic tests
  • Experience more sleep problems
  • Have a greater chance of being overweight
  • Are at higher risk for smoking
  • Read less than other kids
  • Will watch more hours of TV than kids without a TV in their rooms
The article says:
Why a bedroom television appears to have such a pronounced impact is unclear. It may be that it’s a distraction during homework time or that it interferes with sleep, resulting in poorer performance at school. It could also suggest less overall parental involvement.
In spite of the evidence discouraging it, the practice continues. According to Common Sense Media, 42% of kids under age eight have a TV in their bedrooms, including 30% of babies under age one. Another study cited in the medical journal Clinical Pediatrics surveyed parents of children ages 2 to 13. The results show that "67% of all children had a TV in the room where they slept." The study also found that bedroom TVs were more prevalent in minority homes. The abstract of the study says:
The top 3 reasons parents cited for putting a TV in the room where their child sleeps were (a) to keep the child occupied so that the parent could do other things around the house, (b) to help the child sleep, and (c) to free up the other TVs so that other family members could watch their shows.
It sounds like parents don't want to be inconvenienced by missing their own television programs or by having a bored child. Whatever the reasons for putting a TV in a child's bedroom, it's time to rethink them for the health and well-being of the children.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

What Facebook Knows About You

Have you posted your birth date and year to your Facebook profile? Shared the birth dates and full names of your children? Identified family members? Confessed to substance abuse or hating your job?

Do you understand Facebook's privacy controls?

Consider the following numbers - and the reasons why Facebook users might think twice about what they share, published by Consumer Reports (quoted directly):
  • 4.8 million people have used Facebook to say where they planned to go on a certain day (a potential tip off for burglars).
  • 4.7 million “liked” a Facebook page about health conditions or treatments (details an insurer might use against you).
  • Almost 13 million users said they had never set, or didn’t know about, Facebook’s privacy tools. And 28 percent shared all, or almost all, of their wall posts with an audience wider than just their friends.
  • Even if you have restricted your information to be seen by friends only, a friend who is using a Facebook app could allow your data to be transferred to a third party without your knowledge.
  • U.S. online privacy laws are weaker than those of Europe and much of the world, so you have few federal rights to see and control most of the information that social networks collect about you.  
  • Eleven percent of households using Facebook said they had trouble last year, ranging from someone using their log-in without permission to being harassed or threatened. That projects to 7 million households—30 percent more than last year.

According to the article, data about you is being gathered by not just Facebook, but by third-party apps and games, employers, insurers, financial institutions, college admissions departments, and even the IRS. The translation is this: sharing too much on Facebook without monitoring your privacy controls can hurt your chances of getting a new job, being accepted for health insurance, getting a loan, or getting into college. Overall it sounds like the digital version of survival of the fittest.

Consumer Reports quotes a research firm that serves financial institutions and insurers: "Our electronic trails have been digitized, formatted, standardized, analyzed and modeled, and are up for sale. As intimidating as this may sound to the individual, it is a great opportunity for businesses to use this data.”

It's clear that sharing too much and/or not using adequate privacy settings can be risky for adults. But an estimated 5.6 million kids under the age of 13 have Facebook accounts (although Facebook self-imposed a 13-and-over age minimum). It's well documented that many parents of underage kids with Facebook profiles either don't know about their child's online activities, or they know about it but do nothing. Given that young kids are even more likely to be trusting, naive and share more than their older counterparts, this could amount to problems for many kids.

Parents should be educated on Facebook's data collecting practices, know what the risks are, and more than ever, become involved in their child's online activities.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Ratings Creep and Movie Review Tools

Source: Common Sense Media
Do you feel like movies are more violent, contain more sexual content, and more profane than they used to be? Are you ever surprised by a rating? (i.e. "Wow, that really should be rated higher than G.") You're not alone. Media experts have recognized that movies contain more "mature" content than similarly rated movies just a decade ago. They call it "ratings creep."

Chelsea Clinton and James P. Steyer refer to ratings creep in their CNN.com article Is the Internet hurting children?.
[The challenges that today's kids face] also include traditional media and the phenomenon of "ratings creep" in the movies that our kids consume. Movies today -- even G-rated ones -- contain significantly more sex and violence, on average, than movies with the same rating 10 or 20 years ago.
A 2004 study by the Harvard School of Public Health found evidence that "violence, sex, and profanity increased significantly in movies between 1992 and 2003." This suggests "that the MPAA became increasingly more lenient in assigning its age-based movie ratings." The Motion Picture Association of America voluntarily assigns ratings to films to inform the public of content and age appropriateness. But the ratings appear to be non-standardized. Other organizations point out that the MPAA is biased because it is "financed and controlled by the film industry." In fact, ratings are subject to film marketing decisions and are negotiable.

The Harvard study draws some interesting conclusions that affect parents:
  • Parents need to be aware of the the film industry's attempts to normalize substance abuse, including tobacco, alcohol and drugs. As of the date of the study, the use of cigarettes on camera was not listed as a ratings reason at all although 79% of all movies included representations of smoking. Additionally, 93% of all films included depictions of substance abuse, while substance abuse was listed as a ratings reason only 18% of the time.
  • Parents should know that "movies with the same rating can differ significantly in the amount and types of potentially objectionable content. Age-based ratings alone do not provide good information about the depiction of violence, sex, profanity and other content, and the criteria for rating movies became less stringent over the last decade."
In a post a few months ago I cited Common Sense Media as an independent movie review system that helps parents determine which movies are right for their families.  Through reading the Harvard study, I discovered another movie review site that could be very helpful for parents: Kids-In-Mind.com.

While advocating for "responsible, engaged parenting," Kids-In-Mind.com shares objective movie reviews based on three criteria: sex/nudity, violence/gore, and profanity. It makes no judgements about what is right or wrong; it just shares the facts about what a movie watcher will experience in a movie.

I tested the site. I looked at the reviews of a few movies I've already seen and the reviews were accurate. In fact, the reviews included information that I missed while watching the movie. While the site contains reviews of what looks like hundreds of movies, not all movies are covered. I didn't find one that my kids particularly like: Marley and Me: The Puppy Years. I'm interested in how that movie would score.

I should note that Kids-In-Mind is fraught with advertisements. The organization claims it needs the ads for revenue, and they have no control over the content of the ads. (Ironically, a Spider Man ad popped up for me when using the site.) Those that sign up as members of the site for $25 per year get an ad-free version to use.  I should also note that the site is run by a for-profit company called Critics, Inc. What this all means, I don't know. But at first glance it seems like a thorough, reliable, and useful tool for parents, and the more tools we have to make informed decisions for our families, the better off our kids will be.