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Is Your Kid Media Literate? Are You?

3 tips for raising kids who understand what they're seeing

Published on: October 11, 2018

Row of young students holding cell phones

Today’s changing media landscape reaches far beyond TV and radio to increasingly ubiquitous social media newsfeeds, memes, podcasts, YouTube, video games and apps. And, of course, embedded in all of it: advertising and messages of both the clandestine and obvious varieties. 

From home to class and everywhere in-between, kids and teens are actively and passively engaging with a massive amount of media every day. 

report from Common Sense Media says kids ages 8–12 spend an average of six hours a day engaged with some form of media, compared to nine hours for teens 13–18. The AAP says the average child in the U.S. sees 13,000 to 30,000 advertisements on TV each year — that figure doesn’t even account for other media outlets.

And it has an impact. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and Media Literacy Now list a number of short- and long-term negative consequences of exposure to marketing. 

On the list: negative health outcomes related to the advertising of unhealthy products like tobacco, alcohol and fast food; poor mental health including depression, low self-esteem and negative body image; and increased parent-child conflict. 

Dr. Laura Kastner, a clinical psychologist at the University of Washington and ParentMap author, says the constant consumption of media — especially the 24/7 news cycle — also contributes to higher stress levels among children and adolescents. 

“Our brains are not actually set up to be able to process information from all over the world all day long,” she says. “We have to understand how vulnerable our brains are to novelty, arousal and entertainment and take some precautions."

It's not just what you buy

The influence of media and advertising doesn’t just exist on the micro-level of affecting only the individual consumer, adds Troy Elias, an assistant professor of advertising at the University of Oregon. Rather, the power lies in the ability to shape and construct cultural and societal norms including harmful stereotypes and problematic attitudes.

“If you're a parent, you have to be committed to understanding the nuances of media and the degree to which you're willing to allow your children to be exposed to some of these things,” says Elias. 

So, how much is too much?

It depends on the individual needs and preferences of your family. One thing that can help no matter what? A crash course in media literacy. That is, how does your child think critically about messages and advertising so they can grow into a smart consumer and responsible creator.

Here are three ways to raise media literate kids:

Set limits and consider safety

There are a variety of benefits of media, too. You can access knowledge and information, get an expanded worldview, be entertained. 

But setting limits on screen time, utilizing privacy settings and understanding the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) are all great ways to curb the potential negative impact.

Create age-appropriate family rules regarding the amount of allowed screen time per day — and be sure parents abide to set a good example. Talk with your kids about the importance of privacy settings, what information they’re sharing and with whom they’re sharing it and enlist the help of parental controls when possible. 

Ask questions and have conversations

All media sends a message. Being able to identify and deconstruct these implicit and explicit messages is the key to media literacy. How do you do that? Talk!

Some questions to ask your kid: 

  • What message(s) both explicit and implicit is this media sending?
  • Who created this message and who is it for? 
  • What idea or product are the creators of this message trying to sell? 
  • What emotions are the creators of this message appealing to? How does this message make you feel?
  • What is the historical context or cultural relevance behind this message? 
  • What stereotypes does this message reinforce? 
  • Who is being represented? Are they represented fairly and accurately? 
  • Does this message promote diversity? Is it inclusive? 
  • Is this message grounded in reality or fiction? Is it authentic? 

Once you develop a pattern of discussion, kids will begin to start asking these questions themselves. 

Seek alternatives 

If you’re examining media with a critical eye, chances are you’ll discover things that make you or your kids uncomfortable.

Perhaps a particular show or video game perpetuates negative stereotypes about minorities or promotes fat-shaming, or maybe a brand is using shady tactics to market to younger children.

Blacklist those forms of media and find less problematic alternatives. One good thing about the immense media landscape is that there is a lot out there to choose from! 

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