02/07/2014 04:07 pm ET Updated Apr 09, 2014

Analyzing Your Media History

Each spring semester for the past eighteen years, I've taught a course at Tufts University called Children and Mass Media. And each January I've chosen to begin the class the same way. On the first day of class, I give my students their first assignment: analyze your personal media history.

Years ago I asked them to write about their personal television history, but with the dominance of the Internet, the growing importance of social media and the multiple uses of different types of mobile platforms in the lives of young people, I've had to revise the assignment. Even though the prompt has morphed a bit, I find that the results are always the same: it's a great way to get students to start thinking about how their media preferences and consumption as children colors their media preferences and consumption as young adults. I don't grade this assignment, but I do use it to get conversation going. And I learn a lot about my students, because it turns out that media use is intricately and intimately connected to a lot of personal issues.

Over the years I've had students write this paper, I've seen some fascinating trends emerge. One pattern is an inverse relationship between the amount of control parents or caregivers exert over a child's media intake and the amount of media that child -- now grown into a young adult -- freely admits she or he consumes. When parents greatly limit a child's media use, the child-cum-adult uses a lot of media; when parents do not set enormous barriers to a child's media use, she or he tends to view and use media far more moderately as a young adult. There are exceptions to this rule and I have to admit I have not tracked this very systematically, but there's no doubt the overall pattern exists.

For instance, one student this year wrote, "Ten or so years of extreme parental control over my media use were followed by a few years of absolute media saturation. I'm sure that my parents' stringent media rules during my childhood strongly influenced my desire to over-consume media when I first got to college." And conversely, a student whose parents "truly set no limits as to what my brothers and I could watch or listen to or surf" found that "today I actually spend very little time with media. I watch practically no TV and am a much lighter consumer of most social media than many of my peers. I have to think that because my parents never forbade us from media and had such a laissez-faire attitude about it influenced my siblings and I to have pretty moderate and balanced views and use of media today."

Increasing numbers of my students are writing about how they have made very deliberate decisions to take a break from social media. I've written a column previously about how students are taking a holiday from Facebook, but this year I've found even more students who not only opt out of Facebook, but also are disabling their Pinterest, Instagram or Twitter accounts. "When I realized how much time I was wasting reading everyone's tweets, I realized it was time to get off that social media merry-go-round" wrote one young man.

As Tufts has become ever more diverse in terms of the racial, ethnic, global and economic backgrounds of our students, some of these socioeconomic factors have also found their ways into this assignment. This year a student who had grown up in both Seoul and New York wrote about how her confusion over whether she was Korean or Korean American translated into the television shows she selected as a child. A student who hails from Turkey wrote of how she learned to speak English primarily from watching Disney films and how this created a disconnect with her parents, who did not know a word of English. A student who grew up in a single parent household in South Central Los Angeles wrote of how her mom was determined to do what she could "to protect me and my four siblings from the negative influences of the world all around us, and that included prohibiting us from seeing the glitzy world on television and in advertising that was so different from the reality of our lives." A student who was raised in multicultural Hawaii stated that she "never saw the kind of people I was surrounded with in any of the media I saw as a child." And a student from Ghana wrote about how the dominance of American media in his life as a child meant ""I often dreamed of spending a whole day just watching American programming."

Some students wrote prescient essays about how different forms of media had held social significance for them at different points in their childhood. Writing about his presence on AOL growing up, one young man admitted that, "I could create an AOL profile through which the whole world could see me the way I wanted to be seen, and talk to the girls I was too socially awkward to talk to at school. I literally could not summon the courage to ask a girl for her help on homework at school, but I was flawless in the placement of a coy smiley face and spelling cool 'kool,' or 'kewl' -- whatever the coolest way to spell it was that week."

Another student discussed her thoughts on some of the ways in which memories of childhood media use had proved a bonding mechanism, a form of social indoctrination, during her first days at Tufts: "In the confusion and excitement of the first week of college orientation, some particular conversations seem to be repeated constantly with various groups of fellow freshmen. Few topics come up as continuously as television and other media consumption beyond names, dorms and dining hall food. Possibly in a show of solidarity as a generation, reminiscing on children's television from "the good old-days" of the mid- to late-nineties is a common practice of college students, both in person and on the Internet. Discussing the ninja-turtles' obsession with pizza or playing the Rugrats theme song on a piano would probably considered valid and relatable conversation-starters for many Tufts students and current undergraduates in general. These types of interactions are representative of the sentiment that certain media consumption is considered ubiquitous for my demographic."

Finally, I have found that students often link their media use to other issues that affected them in childhood. Sometimes these issues are intense and profound: The student who wrote about how her parents' addictions to alcohol and drugs shaped her own "addictive personality, which at times has included an addiction to media." There are always students who write about how media use figured into figuring out relationships with parents who had split up. This year, I read about one student whose divorced parents had very different rules about media use in their homes which made my student and her siblings acutely conscious of how media use at respective parents' homes led them to periodically favor one parent over another, and about another student who obsessively watched The Sound of Music because the film was the only positive memory she had to hold onto from the father from whom she'd become estranged.

There are always stories like the one from the young man who wrote that he loved playing video games as a child because "feelings of triumph, sadness and anxiety got funneled through a fictional world to the point where I realized that I was using all my emotional energies there and had little to spare for the real world in which I sometimes lived." And then there are the young women who write poignantly and movingly about their obsession with teen magazines or unhealthy and unobtainable body images of television models. "I truly thought that the runway models and the girls in acne commercials were typical. I never saw anyone overweight on TV. I couldn't change my eyes, my nose or freckles, but the one thing I could change was my weight. Overcoming anorexia recast my relationship with TV."

I don't think I knew when I first came up with this assignment just how revealing it would turn out to be. I asked my students for permission to quote from their papers anonymously in this piece, and without exception, they gave it to me. They realized, as I have, that this assignment says a lot about the relationship between media use and cultural issues. It's proven to be one of the best assignments I've ever given.