Like so many other parents Anne Zehren has plopped her two young sons in front of the TV from time to time to get some work done without worrying too much about it. But what’s on the TV and how long it’s on — along with computers, videogames and other media — is something all parents should be concerned about, according to Zehren, the president and chief operating officer of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization that helps parents make sense of the digital world and offers ways to make informed media decisions for their families. The amount of time kids spend in that digital world is at a crisis level, she believes.
Zehren has been delving into the minds of youths long before she became a first-time mom just days before she turned 42. She was the publisher of Teen People, which let teens dictate the content and issues, and president of sales and marketing for Al Gore's Current TV before joining Common Sense Media in 2003. Earlier this year, Common Sense Media partnered with Disney to get kids and their parents thinking about how to safely navigate the Internet and other digital platforms.
Zehren lives with her husband, Harvey, 9-year-old stepson and 6-year-old son in San Francisco.
In many fields, women who rise to the top are either single or childfree. What has been your experience before you had children and once you became a mom?
I got married when I was 41, and it was very different. I didn’t mind staying out late or sleeping in on a Saturday; those days are pretty much have stopped. I try to limit my travel. I race home, take red-eyes, get up at of the middle of dawn to race home to kiss my kids goodnight. I’m constantly shrinking more time into my day at work; before, I might linger around the halls or stay an extra 20 minutes at lunch and now I’m just crunching and crunching and crunching. I make it a rule to be home at 6 at night. That’s really important; our kids are so young, they’re going to bed at 7:30, 8 o’clock. But, I am going back on the computer at 9, but that’s in my time, not theirs.
When I was growing up, we had a few media options — TV, radio, print and my beloved Princess phone. My mother didn’t allow comic books, but I still managed to sneak in some Archie and Veronica comics anyway. How has media made parenting easier and how has it made it harder?
Every mom needs that movie they put their child in front of or that TV show or that game to play because it’s really hard to find that “me” time, or to blow dry your hair in the morning, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you choose the right stuff, it actually can be good for your kids. What’s happened, however, is the media has become “the other parent” in our kids’ lives now, and the media might not be imparting values to them that we wanted to impart. The kind of shocking news that brought me to Common Media is that average child in the U.S., when you consider texting, is spending nine hours a day in front of a screen. That’s incredibly sad. I think it’s a national crisis. As parents, we’re competing with this other influential parent and you’re asking yourself, “What values are they teaching my child, what kind of role models are they seeing, what are they learning to improve their character and intelligence?”
One of the beliefs of Common Sense Media is that the media industry needs to act responsibly in creating and marketing content. But in a free marketplace, isn’t it up to the consumer — in this case, the parents — to ultimately take control of what their kids watch or read?
That used to be the case. In the old days, we had a TV in our living room and parents could talk with their kids or just tell them what they could and couldn’t watch. They had control over that TV. Now, it’s completely different. The access our kids have to media has changed 100 percent. A television in their bedroom, a laptop on their desk, a gaming console in the basement, and an iTouch in their backpack. They have a cell phone, which is really like having a computer in their pocket, and so the content they’re accessing, parents don’t have control over. Parents now need to teach their kids to make good decisions on their own.