A. Rae Simpson
Administrator, Family Resource Center
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Consultant, Center for Health Communication
Harvard School of Public Health
Thus far, this symposium on "The Media and Parenthood" has considered a number of very compelling aspects of this topic: What impact do media have on family life and family interactions? What impact do media have on children? And how can parents and others influence these media effects on children?
I would like to consider briefly a complementary issue, that is, the impact of the media on the parents themselves. In particular, I would like to consider the impact of the media on parents about parenting, that is, the ways in which the media play a role in providing information and support to parents about child-rearing. In other words, while we have been considering largely the influence of the media on children, and hence indirectly on their parents, I would like to shift our focus for the moment to the influence of the media on the parents, and hence indirectly on the children.
In the past few decades, there has been an explosion of information and advice about child-rearing in the mass media. In nearly every category of mass media, from books and magazines to television and the internet, messages about child-rearing are being directed to parents to an unprecedented degree.
Yet little attention has been given to the quantity or quality of those messages, or to their impact on parents or parenting. Similarly, little attention has been given to the opportunities offered by the media to have greater and more positive impact on parents at a time when, by all accounts, such support is badly needed.
To address this gap in our understanding, recently the Center for Health Communication at the Harvard School of Public Health, with funding from The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, undertook a study of the role of the mass media in parenting education. Its goal was to pull together existing information, to offer some initial observations, and to catalyze further research, reflection, discussion, consensus, and action.
In this two-year project, the Harvard Center for Health Communication gathered and analyzed data about the role of the mass media in parenting education from a variety of sources, including research studies, press reports, and media project samples and descriptions. Also, over 200 interviews were conducted with key professionals in such fields as media policy, historical research, communication research, health care, funding administration, health promotion, parent education, child advocacy, journalism, publishing, broadcasting, media economics, anthropology, sociology, advertising, and public relations. A group of eight leaders served as expert advisors, and a number of other interviewees offered substantial information and advice.
The scope of the project was defined to include media activities for which parents and others in parenting roles were specifically designated as a target audience. Projects were not included for which the primary audience was children, although it was clearly acknowledged that parents are an important audience for children's media, as monitors and mediators of their children's experience, as the ultimate target of much of the advertising and many of the messages in children's media, and as the family members most likely to experience and influence any media effects on children's behavior. It was further acknowledged that some children's and family programs, such as Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, offer powerful models for healthy caregiving behavior, and that parents sometimes report watching them for this very purpose. Finally, it was acknowledged that the presence of the media profoundly influences family patterns of interaction, by virtue of the quantity of their daily consumption by children and parents, alone and together, and by their presence as "background noise" in family life.
Focusing, then, on messages directed to parents about parenting, and gathering a broad range of research and practical experience, the project issued a report last summer that identified four significant strengths in media coverage of parenting, but also four serious weaknesses. Based on this analysis, the report recommended two major initiatives, in order to capitalize on the media's strengths, address the weaknesses, and tap more effectively the considerable potential of the media to support current and future efforts on behalf of children, parents, and families.
The following is a summary of the report's findings. The full report is available from the Harvard Center for Health Communication, which is headed by Dr. Jay A. Winsten, and for which I serve as a consultant. The summary is necessarily brief, but I will very much welcome questions and discussion at the end of this session.
In assessing the current state of media attention to parenting, several positive and promising developments emerged. Of these developments, the following four strengths were particularly noteworthy:
Printed parenting materials have proliferated dramatically in the past two to four decades--books, magazines, newsletters, regional parenting papers, pamphlets, and parenting articles in newspapers. Over 1500 parenting books are estimated to be in print today, representing about 20% of the "psychology" market. Similarly, over 200 magazines are estimated to be devoted to aspects of parenting and family life, not including women's magazines and other more general titles that include significant parenting material. Controlled-circulation, regional parenting papers, typically distributed free to consumers, are now available in almost every major city, and controlled-circulation "baby" magazines, also free to consumers, reach almost every new parent. Child and family beat reporters have become quite common at major daily newspapers, and "child-related" stories are a regular feature of the news landscape. In short, almost every parent, regardless of socioeconomic status, is exposed to printed information about parenting, most repeatedly.
In particular, significant growth is occurring in three areas: (1) in public television, where two parenting series ran last year, and at least two others are in development; (2) in cable television, where several parenting and family series are running; and (3) on the internet, where parenting sites are mushrooming. On commercial television and radio, news programming and talk shows include a significant amount of parenting content. Also, public service campaigns often target parents as a key audience--campaigns such as the major "I Am Your Child" initiative, recent initiatives of the Advertising Council, and network initiatives such as NBC's The More You Know.
By a number of measures, many parents have a high level of interest in information about child-rearing, including information from the mass media, on a broad range of topics. Studies suggest that media are commonly used as sources of parenting information, sometimes as extensively as, or more extensively than, interpersonal sources such as family, clergy, or counselors. Of course, the extent to which particular parents are reached by the media varies profoundly according to a number of important factors, including age, gender, communication skills and style, cultural and language preferences, and economic resources. There are promising examples, however, of efforts to reach harder-to-reach parents, such as newsletters for isolated rural parents (including here in Wisconsin), community mobilization campaigns on African American urban radio stations, and Spanish language public service announcements.
Although little direct research has been done specifically on the effects of the media on parents, inferences can be drawn from theory, related research, and professional experience. Together, they make a strong case that the media--including both informational and entertainment media--have important influences, in conjunction with other forces and strategies, on parents' attitudes and behaviors about child-rearing. The media, in other words, are potentially an important tool in supporting and informing parents.
On the other hand, a number of drawbacks seriously undermine the ability of the media to contribute effectively to the well-being of parents and families. Of these drawbacks, four are especially important:
Contributing in particular to the inaccessibility of information is the fact that researchers and resources related to parenting are embedded in dozens of organizations and disciplines, from psychology to law, from early childhood education to adult education, from medicine to social work and community development. Over 40 professional organizations alone represent parenting researchers and practitioners. For journalists, and even for practitioners working with parents, information is difficult to locate and even more difficult to evaluate.
Caught in the interaction of economic, intellectual, cultural, and social forces, the only constant in child-rearing advice has been change. For example, broad shifts from permissive to authoritarian approaches have occurred from century to century, and, within the twentieth century, from generation to generation. Within the pendulum swings, advice about specific issues also shifts from source to source, from expert to expert: consider, for instance, recent assertions about the value and the risks of spanking or the value and risks of building children's self-esteem. Amid this fluctuation and controversy, researchers, practitioners, the media, policy makers, advocates, and parents have all been frustrated in their efforts to seek reliable information from each other.
This relative inattention to the parenting of adolescents occurs in spite of the fact that adolescents have unique and critical developmental needs, and that failure to meet those needs creates serious risks for adolescents, families, and society. Parents play a critical role in influencing outcomes for teenagers, as recent research has underscored, but they often lack the information and support to do so effectively. Exacerbating the problem are powerful negative images of teenagers in the news and entertainment media; recent research documents a significant tendency for the news and entertainment media to portray adolescents as "troubled teens," plagued by problems of crime, violence, drugs, and bad attitudes. These images are also widespread within the public at large, according to survey data, including parents themselves.
What little is known about the messages about child-rearing that reach parents from entertainment programming is mixed, partly reassuring, partly troubling. Content analyses document what we know anecdotally: entertainment programming, in particular family sitcoms and films, portray dozens of parent-child interactions every hour. While depictions of family life are in many ways positive, concerns are widely shared about such issues as the underrepresentation of many cultural groups; stereotypical portrayals of gender roles; depictions of young children as needing little care and supervision (in part because the children serve largely as "props" for the adult interactions); and the depiction of parents as solving family problems quickly, easily, and in isolation from any support system. Research is urgently needed to analyze further the messages conveyed by entertainment media about parenting and family life, to assess the impact of those messages on parents, and to explore the potential for influencing those messages in positive ways, using initiatives that have been effective in promoting other important social issues, such as immunization and drunk driving.
These weaknesses, while significant, are also windows of opportunity for making significant progress in understanding and strengthening the role of the media in supporting parents. At the heart of the problem are weaknesses in the knowledge base, and a set of concrete steps can be taken to address these weaknesses in cost-effective ways.
The steps involve, first, consolidating findings and building consensus among researchers and practitioners involved in issues of parenting, and second, ensuring that the emerging knowledge is disseminated in careful, extensive, and effective ways. The Harvard Parenting Project therefore recommends in its report two key initiatives:
It is widely agreed that the time has come to bring together leaders from a broad range of disciplinary and cultural perspectives in order to consolidate, integrate, and analyze both research and practical knowledge about parenting.
A key purpose of these efforts would be to identify the areas of agreement that exist within the diversity of cultures and approaches that make up current parenting research and practice in this country. Widespread (albeit never universal) agreement is possible in several areas, according to a number of leading researchers and practitioners. Significant commonalities would be expected to emerge, for example, with respect to some of the central goals that parents and society hold for children and child-rearing, with respect to some of the key roles that children need parents to play in order to meet these goals, and with respect to some of the key resources that parents need from society, as well as the most effective ways to provide them. More diversity, although still some important agreement, would be expected with respect to specific parental strategies for meeting children's needs. The degree of consensus that has been achieved in recent initiatives, such as in the information on early brain development prepared for the "I Am Your Child" Campaign, illustrates the potential for this kind of process.
Such initiatives would take unprecedented steps to clarify the areas of agreement, disagreement, and uncertainty with respect to existing knowledge about parenting. The implications of doing so would be profound for empowering the media, parents, and all those who work with and for parents and families.
Information about the importance of parenting and of particular parenting practices will only be as effective as its dissemination. Carefully planned and executed communications initiatives are needed to ensure that, as it emerges, new information reaches parents, as well as media, advocates, policy makers, and practitioners who work with parents, such as parenting educators, health care providers, early childhood educators, teachers, and mental health providers. A number of characteristics would be important to the success of such initiatives, including their coordination with the many existing media projects that target parents and families.
Within these initiatives, special attention also needs to be paid to the areas in which there are gaps in current media efforts. This can be accomplished by designing and implementing special initiatives to address key issues, including (1) targeting parents who are not effectively reached by current media efforts, including harder-to-reach parents and parents of adolescents; (2) researching more extensively the impact of current messages in both informational and entertainment media, as well as ways to introduce more positive effects, especially in entertainment media; and (3) creating a permanent resource center to make information accessible to the media and others in an ongoing way.
In other words, the report recommends that significant attention be given to the coherence and the accessibility of the knowledge base about parenting, as well as to a few major gaps in the media's attention to parenting and our attention to the media.
The Harvard Center for Health Communication undertook the study just described in part to clarify the best ways that the Center could contribute to the process of tapping the powerful potential of the media on behalf of parents and families. As a result of our analysis, the Center has now designed projects that follow up on some of the study's key findings, including the need for consolidation and consensus-building about the body of knowledge, and the need for more media attention to the parenting of adolescents. Our goal is also to stimulate and support other initiatives, to have a "ripple effect," and in fact we see indications that this is happening already.
The stage is set, in other words, to take media initiatives in parenting education to a higher level, one that influences underlying social and parental attitudes, reaches broader audiences, sets priorities around particular social needs, engages in more self-reflection and analysis, taps existing knowledge more effectively, and addresses consciously and comprehensively the critical needs of children, parents, and families. I look forward very much to the discussion, and to working together on these important issues.
Copies of the full report on which this presentation is based may be obtained by contacting:
Dr. A. Rae Simpson
Family Resource Center
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
77 Massachusetts Avenue, Room 16-151
Cambridge, MA 02139
Copyright © 1998 A. Rae Simpson.For technical assistance: