How Shared Screen Time Can Help Spark Tough Conversations with Teens
Megan Moreno, MD, MSEd, FAAP
June 5, 2018
I recently asked my tween daughter to watch one of my favorite childhood movies with me. It was Friday night, we had the popcorn ready, and the credits began to roll for “Pretty in Pink.” I’ll admit, I was pretty darn excited to share my love for ‘80s soundtracks and big hair with my daughter.
But as a parent, adolescent medicine physician and researcher, I had another reason for this fun mother-daughter movie night. I was taking a cue from American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) policy that recommends co-viewing mindfully selected media with your kids.
The idea is to help younger children understand what they are seeing and apply what they learn to the world around them, but co-viewing also is a good way to spark important conversations with older children and teens. Throughout the movie, there were timeless coming-of-age themes such as popularity at school, bullying, and pressure to have sex. We talked a lot--both during and after the movie.
Much of the work I do involves what may be called “tough conversations.” Centering on topics like depression, sex, and substance use, these talks happen routinely in my clinic and in my research studies. With accidents, homicide, and suicide stacking up as the top 3 causes of death for teens, these are conversations parents and trusted adults urgently need to be having with their kids.
Important conversations about mental health, sexual and reproductive health, and substance use can be hard for parents to work into every day conversation. There is no comfortable way to transition from “how was school?” to “let’s talk about depression.” This is where the simple act of co-viewing – sitting down with your teen and watching a movie or TV show together—can help. (There are also opportunities for “co-listening” to media, in the form of music or a podcast.)
When the 2016 policy statement, “Media Use in School-Aged Children and Adolescents,” specifically called out the benefits of co-viewing media, it was a novel recommendation. No previous AAP policy had encouraged positive parent-child media use in quite this way. The AAP Family Media Use plan, an interactive tool for parents to create personalized media plans with their children, also includes a prompt to make plans to co-view media.
One benefit of co-viewing is that movies and shows aimed at teens often have storylines that touch on topics such as depression, sex and substance use. Sometimes they portray these issues in a positive light, other times they do not. Either way, being present and engaged as you co-view these stories with your teen invites discussion.
"Important conversations about mental health, sexual and reproductive health, and substance use can be hard for parents to work into every day conversation. There is no comfortable way to transition from “how was school?” to “let’s talk about depression.” This is where the simple act of co-viewing – sitting down with your teen and watching a movie or TV show together—can help."
Parents can ask what theit teen thought of the characters’ actions, for example, or how topics were addressed. This opens an opportunity to correct misinformation and ask how the story relates to what he or she has seen at school or among friends. In this way, those tough conversations can become special discussions filled with opportunities to connect and share stories.
Selecting what to watch, whether it’s a new streaming series in the news or a time-honored classic, can be part of the fun. Growing up an ‘80s kid, I was well-versed in John Hughes movies. Looking on Common Sense Media, a trustworthy source for unbiased reviews and age ratings, “Pretty in Pink” seemed like a decent starter movie for pre-teens.
The movie’s storyline sparked thoughtful conversations between my daughter and me about what it means to be popular, types of romantic relationships may be okay for a teen, and how to know when you’re ready for them. We discussed portrayals of drinking and smoking, and we reflected on the near-total absence of parents at any point in the movie.
Of course, it wasn’t all serious talk. We also debated whether Andie should have ended up with Ducky (of course she should have). And we can share inside jokes in the form of favorite lines (“I’m off like a dirty shirt”).
A lot of parents worry about too much screen time, especially in the summer when kids are out of school. Summer is, in fact, a good time to update the family media use to make sure screen time doesn’t take the place of needed exercise, sleep, and face-to-face social interaction in the real world and other healthy activities. But it’s also a good time to cozy up in front of a screen with your child and press play.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
About the Author
Megan Moreno, MD, MSEd, MPH, FAAP
Megan Moreno, MD, MSEd, MPH, FAAP, is an executive committee member on the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communication and Media and the lead author of the 2016 academy policy statement, “Media Use in School-Aged Children and Adolescents.” She is principal investigator of the Social Media and Adolescent Health Research Team (SMAHRT) within the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. Dr. Moreno served on committee for the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine’s 2016 report: “Preventing Bullying Through Science, Policy and Practice.”