Between must-see blockbusters, TV shows, webisodes, viral video clips, music videos and video games streaming on smartphones, tablets, iPods and laptops, our wired world is in content-overload—and kids are more plugged in than ever before. Will the 24/7 availability of electronic media put a cramp in your child’s ability to succeed at school, in relationships and in life?

A 2010 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that “Eight- to 18-year-olds spend more time with media than in any other activity besides sleeping—an average of more than 7.5 hours a day, seven days a week. [This media offers] a constant stream of messages about families, peers, relationships, gender roles, sex, violence, food, values, clothes, and an abundance of other topics too long to list. Understanding the role of media in young people’s lives is essential for those concerned about promoting the healthy development of children and adolescents.

So, what’s a parent to do? Instead of abolishing screen time, use your child’s tech savvy to his advantage by teaching him how to use the media in beneficial, educational ways.

  • Read before watching. Suggest that your kid read a book before the film adaptation hits the theaters—and pick up a copy for yourself as well. Afterward, treat him to the movie version, then talk about how the book and film compare and contrast. A popular story can inspire even the most reluctant readers—in fact, The Hollywood Reporter states that after The Hunger Games film was released, “there were 36.5 million copies of the bestselling trilogy in print, a 55 percent jump from the 23.5 million copies in print at the start of 2012 before the movie was released.”
  • Family film time. Pick a night to indulge in popcorn and the latest DVDs at home with your brood. Watching flicks with the family in the comfort of your living room sparks conversations about the issues posed and dilemmas faced by the characters. For example, The Crucible, already used in high school literature courses, can be used to teach ethic morals. Use the programming as an “in” to your kid’s opinion; listen to his points of view, and share yours as well. To talk current issues, watch the newly released film Bully together, and discuss the bullying epidemic along with possible solutions to the problem.
  • Active visual literacy. Pinpoint the images, choices, sounds, music, and storytelling devices in film, television shows and video games as you watch them together. Point out subtle emotional moods created by lighting and music—how do they add to the story? Give your little learner a pencil, paper and creative license to switch up the story elements—how would he change the chain of events? Envisioning alternate scenarios and stories teaches your child valuable writing skills, encourages creativity and fosters critical thinking.
  • Pick a theme. Utilize your kid’s imagination by planning a nature night or war movie marathon, complete with themed activities, such as a virtual (or real) scavenger hunt chock-full of supplemental information. This “curiosity feeding” will help your child identify themes he’s interested in, creating a domino effect of learning for years down the line.For example, an interest in Happy Feet can lead to more information in March of the Penguins or National Geographic’s Frozen Planet. Check out the Independent Documentary Association site and Netflix for age-appropriate documentaries to spark a hidden interest in your child.
  • Use online resources. The Internet’s full of teaching guides from non-profit organizations that can help you, as a parent, utilize the media to increase your child’s learning skills., and are all examples of reputable sites that have done all the heavy lifting for you—selecting films, providing questions and suggesting supplemental activities, such as recipes from the movie, or day trips that put you in the center of famous film settings.
  • Pop culture appeal. Use films based on current controversies to pull your kid into the conversation. With all the talk around childhood obesity and making school lunch healthier, Super-Size Me offers a perfect tool to warn of the dangers of unhealthy eating habits and a lack of proper nutrition. Additionally, this “foodie” documentary also sparks discussion about antidotes to fast food industry advertising.

Children today are exposed to media content from a much earlier age, in multiple forms and from all directions. Television, movies and media aren’t all bad—it just takes a little ingenuity and effort to make sure that your kid isn’t simply “hypnotized” by the screen, but actively engaged by what he sees and hears. By using these methods, you’ll help your child pull educational benefit from popular media, become a conscious consumer and engage him in things he’ll remember to teach his own kids when the time comes.

Diane Namm is an advocate in literacy, lending her gifts to causes such as Covenant House and documenting world issues, including human trafficking. Her non-profit theater company West of Broadway encourages youths to participate in theater productions and makes theater accessible to the community. For more information see