The Role of the Mass Media in Parenting Education

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.

Strengths in the Media's Role

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:

Weaknesses in the Media's Role

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:


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:

Next Steps

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
Telephone: 617/253-1592
Fax: 716/2535-2609

Copyright © 1998 A. Rae Simpson.

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