BY ELLEN BESEN
According to a Kaiser Foundation study, kids spend the equivalent of a full-time workweek using media each week. And according to the American Association of Pediatrics, the average American child is glued to the TV for two to three hours a day. As parents, we need to increase our children’s level of media literacy.
“Media what?” you ask. Media literacy (ML), a skill that involves developing an awareness of the subtle and not-so-subtle messages in TV, magazines, newspapers, movies, advertisements, popular music, the internet, and even computer and video games. Knowing how to “read” the messages includes understanding both what those messages are and how they are being communicated. Sounds good, but do our children really need it?
I would say yes. Just think, then, how much information and misinformation our children are unquestioningly drinking in each day.
Part of the problem, here, lies in the fact that anything that appears on TV already seems important. Television automatically lends an air of authority to its content—a powerful built-in trait, which even adults fall prey to. In addition, few young viewers can fully differentiate between fiction and reality within media content. So if the children in the ad look like they are having fun with that new toy, they must really be having fun. Not just any fun, either, but the most fun ever. And then naturally, your child wants to be having that kind of fun too.
With media literacy training, children are shown how to pull back from media’s spell and consider whether the information being presented is really true; to think about if they agree with the message; to stop regarding the media as an absolute authority and to seek out other points of view—maybe even yours. We’ll focus on toy pitches here, however, the concept carries over to helping your children recognize how any media messages influence and manipulate us, and how we can learn to think critically about the messages.
Swamped by all this distorted information, children without media training easily get swept up by the belief that they are missing out on something; that they really can’t live without the latest toy. And all of this creates pressure that gets relayed directly onto you, the besieged parent.
So rather than falling into the usual behavior, your media-literate children will be able to ask themselves whether that toy in an ad really would be hours of fun or merely a few minutes, and therefore, whether they really want it or not. Even if they decide they do want the toy, they’d still have a better perspective on how important owning it actually is.
To increase your kids’ ML quotient, try making them aware of key ways that media spins information. TV commercials aimed at children are, in fact, an excellent place to start. If the ad seems very exciting, for example, see if you can help your kids identify why. Fast camera moves and quick cutting from one shot to another are two factors that create excitement.
Fast-paced music and an ultra-cheery narrator might also be having a big impact here. Try turning the sound off when the ad comes on and see how this affects the perception of excitement. This one might come as a real surprise because sound plays a much bigger role in creating mood than most of us realize.
Also, consider the toy itself. Does the size seem accurate or are they making it seem bigger, perhaps by placing it next to something extra tiny? Discuss the reality of the special features being offered—what might they be like in real life? Connecting this discussion to your children’s own experiences, both positive and negative, with the gap that often exists between expectations built up by advertising and reality can really bring these key points home.
Of course, you can also point out that the happy children in the ad are actors who are being told to look like they are having fun. If you watch carefully you may even find that the shots of happy faces are quite separate from the shots of the toys. There may not have been any actual playing with the toy involved in the making of the ad.
Be careful not to overdo it. The purpose, after all, is not to turn your kids into cynics, but simply to prevent them from being sitting ducks. It’s true that the undertaking may make your already busy schedule a bit more challenging, but it also may ease tension for years to come.
And keep in mind that while you may be able to control what media your young and even your older children are exposed to, eventually your kids will have to go out into an ever more media-saturated world. ML tools will give them an enviable edge in the greater world—one that will likely serve them well throughout their lives.
Ellen Besen is a media expert, animator, teacher, and author of Animation Unleashed (Michael Wiese Publications, 2009)