“Mommy! Daddy! Can I get a … ?” It’s the line that makes most parents cringe—not to mention, one we all hear way too often. It’s no surprise. The average American child watches two to three hours of TV a day, according to the American Association of Pediatrics and much of that time is devoted to commercials. Add to that all the other forms of media, and their accompanying ads, and it’s easy to see why our kids feel like they have to have that latest toy or gadget. A little media literacy can help counter this, and it’s never too early to start teaching it.
“Media what?” you ask. Media literacy is a skill that involves developing an awareness of the messages that come wrapped in TV, print, movies and even video games. This awareness includes understanding both what those messages are and how they are being communicated.
Part of the problem 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. Naturally, your child wants to be having that kind of fun too.
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. Give your children some insight into the true nature of media, however, and you just might be rewarded by a refreshing change of attitude.
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.
So rather than falling into the usual behavior, your media-literate children would be able to ask themselves whether that toy 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.
Media Literacy Training 101
To increase your kids’ ML quotient, try making them aware of key ways that media spins information. TV ads 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.
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 or may not have been any actual playing with the toy involved in the making of the ad. And even if there were, by the fifth or sixth take, chances are the actors were pretty tired of the whole thing.
Smart Consumers, Not Cynics
Of course, media can be fun and educational—and it’s going to be a big part of your children’s lives no matter what, so the point isn’t to turn your kids into cynics who can’t become engaged in any media. It’s to prevent them from being sitting ducks when it comes to media that tries to influence their behavior.
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 and teacher. She is the author of Animation Unleashed (Michael Wiese Publications, 2009).