Helping kids become critical consumers of media calls for self-focus by adults

Key questions and reflections can help guide media literacy conversations with young people.

According to a 2010 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, young people aged 8 to 18 spend more than 7.5 hours a day, seven days a week with various forms of media; including television, music, computers, video games, print and movies. When considering that young people often use more than one of these at a time, the study found that many youth are packing in 10 hours and 45 minutes of media use each day!

Given this amount of time, coupled with the sheer number of media messages and images involved, it’s no surprise that many educators and researchers advocate the importance of helping kids become critical consumers of this media. This is particularly important when we consider how media messages can affect how we feel about ourselves, other people and the world around us. It’s way too common to think about these messages as “normal” and “just the way it is,” making it incredibly hard for any of us (no matter what our age) to notice the unhealthy, toxic and destructive aspects of so many messages.

When helping young people build skills for analyzing, evaluating and responding to media messages, many experts stress the importance of adults doing their own self-focus and reflection related to these kinds of issues. This process of adults “doing their own work” is one that encourages us to examine our thoughts, feelings, values, beliefs and behaviors so that we’re better positioned to work alongside young people to explore these issues. Asking yourself the following key questions can help guide and inform your conversations with kids:

  • Am I willing to do my own work in order to understand what young people may be watching, reading and listening to? Am I willing to pay attention to thoughts and feelings that come up for me as I do this exploration?
  • Am I trying to tell young people what the messages are? Or am I helping them develop skills to determine what they think the messages might be?
  • Am I really listening to kids as they share their thoughts about what they’re watching, reading or listening to, keeping in mind that their reasons and interpretations may be very different from my own? Have I let them know that I’m open to their responses or have I conveyed that my interpretations and responses are the only correct ones? Are all of us, including me, willing to dig deeper to learn more?
  • Is my goal to help young people become more cynical about media?  Or instead do I want to help them develop their analytical and critical thinking skills, along with options for using their voices to respond to messages that could be causing harm?

More information on these issues and approaches is available at sources such as Five Tips for Raising Media Savvy Kids and the Center for Media Literacy. Michigan State University Extension also provides opportunities for adults to learn more about these issues – including ways that media messages are linked to issues of bullying, bias and harassment. For more information, check out a new initiative called Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments.

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