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Media Literacy Begins at Home

Parents have more control than ever before over how popular culture influences their kids. The trick is to treat media as an ally rather an enemy.
December 5, 2003

In October, the Kaiser Family Foundation released a startling new study of media consumption in early childhood. Based on telephone interviews with more than a thousand parents, Kaiser found, for instance, that children under six spend about the same amount of time each day consuming media (118 minutes) as they do playing outside (121 minutes). This finding raised great public outcry among those who see media consumption as a social problem.

I was reminded of W. Russell Neuman’s 1991 prediction in The Future of the Mass Audience that the transformative potential of new media would be blunted by the continuation of mental habits developed through decades of relating to mass media. We are taught to see media in  passive terms rather than to develop the selectivity, creativity, awareness, and agency needed for the new media age. Most current parenting advice adopts a protectionist or even prohibitionist perspective, urging parents to unplug their sets. It takes for granted that there can be no constructive relationship between child-rearing and popular culture and that we must therefore seek only to minimize the damage; most adopts a double standard, stressing the importance of parents shaping their children’s encounters with literary stories but seeing popular culture purely as a negative influence; most depicts parents and children as passive victims rather than empowered media users.

Such advice clearly has had an impact. The Kaiser study found, for example,  that 90 percent of parents have rules about what their kids watch and 69 percent have rules about how much they watch. Such restrictions are not bad as a first step, but most parents end there. With a media literate child, such restrictions may be unnecessary. Fortunately, many of today’s parents-especially those in their 20s or 30s-came of age as avid game players and full participants in online communities. They have an instinctive grasp of what is required to prepare their children for the new media environment.

Media literacy refers to the full range of capabilities children need if they are going to be full participants in a more participatory media culture. It includes skills in using new media technologies, cultural competencies in understanding how stories are constructed and what they mean, aesthetic vocabularies that heighten their appreciation of diverse forms of expression, and critical frameworks for thinking about the power big media companies exert even in an age of expanding options. Though we often trivialize the intellectual demands of popular culture, these skills are acquired over time and depend upon informal instruction. Parents provide such mentoring, both by modeling patterns of media consumption and by developing and enforcing guidelines for how they want their children to relate to media content.

We would not regard our children to be literate if they could read and not write. We should similarly not feel that our children have developed basic media literacy if they can consume but not produce media. Creating media content can range from the traditional, such as writing stories, to the high-tech, such as programming original computer games. Just as reading and writing skills feed on each other, production and consumption skills for other media are also mutually reinforcing.

Parents often complain that popular culture threatens their ability to shape their children’s values. In practice, though, parents have more control than ever before-if they treat media as an ally rather an enemy. Given the sheer range of media available in an era of 200-plus cable channels-not to mention countless games, DVDs, videos, and Web sites-it is much more likely that parents can find media that reflects their own values and cultural background if they learn how to look for it. The disturbing images in some contemporary video games bear more than a passing resemblance to the pictures we used to draw with our crayons when we were kids-images of Army guys getting their heads blown off. The difference is that we often hid those pictures from adult view, whereas they are now consumed, out in the open, in the living room. Such open consumption need not imply endorsement of the depicted actions. What parents can see, they can monitor and shape.

To intervene effectively, parents need to know what media their kids are consuming and why. Parents should spend time watching shows, playing games, listening to music, and scanning the Web with their children. As parents do so, they should model active engagement-asking the child to predict what is going to happen next, helping her to understand how one event is connected to previous and subsequent developments, and discussing what each event means for the characters. (Just don’t do it sitting next to me in a movie theater, please!) Do not be too frustrated if the child’s attentions wander. Kids younger than five or six tend to watch media in short spurts, rather than processing entire stories. VCRs, TiVos, and DVD players support such viewing practices, allowing kids to skip over the dull bits and zero in on the most meaningful segments. And parents shouldn’t be afraid to hit the pause key themselves occasionally if it seems that the child has missed something important.

The relationship between new media and the family has been disproportionately shaped by the debates about video game violence, which again focus on media “effects” rather than media uses. Within this framework, all forms of violent or disturbing content are inappropriate for children. Yet, many parents realize that working through emotional issues via fiction may be a way of lowering tensions, allowing parents to communicate with children about things they fear, and helping them to bring those scary thoughts under their symbolic control. It’s no accident, after all, that much of children’s literature deals with the death of a parent or other loved one-fear of abandonment is something that many children confront. The same principle should apply to other media kids consume-including at least the milder forms of media violence, which can be used as an opening to help kids thinking through alternative ways of dealing with their own aggressive feelings.

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