Family Media Literacy – A Necessary Literacy For the Digital Age

The average child in the US watches television at least four hours per day, choosing to spend more time with a flat, two-dimensional surface than time with parents or peers. The average preschooler sees over 10,000 violent acts per year, priming misbehavior and depression. And the average teen spends at least 53 hours a week plugged in some sort of screen gadget. These statistics startle, yet they keep increasing as the technology “advances.”

Helping children become media literate-being discerning of media images and knowing how to use all screen technologies wisely–is an imperative in the digital age. A media literate child knows he or she is in control of TV, video, and video games, computers and note be controlled by them. Family media literacy, while a crucial imperative of our times, can also be a lot of fun. By focusing on these four areas of family media literacy, parents will find that that their parenting gets easier as children become more capable and more competent. Children’s self-identity and self-respect will skyrocket. It’s sheer joy to parent kids who are in control, self-directed, and loving toward themselves and others.

Control and Manage TV and Video

A 2004 study by Dimitri A. Christakis at the University of Washington and Children’s Hospital clearly demonstrated that young children face a 10% increase in the risk of having attention problems at the age of seven for every hour of daily television that they watch. Other studies show that elementary age children who watch four or more hours a day of TV expend less effort on school work, have poorer reading skills, play less well with friends, and have fewer hobbies and activities than light viewers. Children who are heavy screen users read little, have more attention problems, poorer language abilities, and have emotional and social difficulties. (Huston, A. C., Donnerstein, E., Fairchild, H., Feshbach, N. D., Katz, P. A., Murray, J. P., Rubinstein, E. A., Wilcox, B. L., and Zuckerman, D. 1992. Big World, Small Screen: The Role of Television in American Society. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press) Even television on in the background interferes with the retention of skills and information during homework time. (Armstrong, G. B., Boirsky, G. A., & Mares, M-L. (1991, September). Background television and reading performance. Communication Monographs, 58.)

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends zero hours of any screen technology for children under age two and only one hour per day for children over two. A goal of 5-7 hours a week of “screen time” seems to be the healthiest for older children and teens, albeit difficult for many families. But any time in reduction can be time well spent, considering the tremendous importance of child and teen brain development. Consider reducing screen time 15 minutes per day for one month, then the next month take it to 30 minutes a day less. Continue each month to reduce until you are at one hour, or less, a day. You can also:

• Establish a few rules and strive for consistency.
• Keep TV off when no one is watching it.
• Replace TV viewing with reading, physical activities, and experiences to amplify family creativity and aliveness-have the children devise original games or ways to entertain themselves. A bored child becomes a boring adult. Children are inherently creative when given the chance. They’ll love daily opportunities to use their own “brain power” and express themselves through art, dance, drama, storytelling, music, pantomime, etc.

Set Up Your Home to be a Media-Literate Environment

John Dewey, the great education innovator, used to say, “The environment teaches.” What he basically meant by that simple statement is that what surrounds the child also teaches the child. The home surroundings, then, can impact kids greatly! When we intentionally create a home environment that speaks loudly, “You are smarter than anything you see on TV,” “You are just as creative as that film director,” children grow up confident in their own talents and abilities with less chance that screen machines will dominate life. These are effective strategies:

• Remove the TV from your child’s bedroom. Replace with an aquarium, a sand table, art materials-anything that allows your child to focus attention and participate in life.
• Consider carefully where televisions are placed around the house. Is the TV right where there’s a lot of foot traffic?
• Talk often about TV and computers as learning tools. Studies show that children who watched informative, educational television as pre-schoolers, watch more informative television as they get older and use television as a complement to school. Children who watched more entertainment television, watched fewer informative programs as they got older and used television more to entertain and as a leisure pastime. (MacBeth, Tannis (editor) (1996). Tuning Into Young Viewers. Newbury Park, CA: SAGE Publications.)
• Say often, “We are in charge of television (computers, cell phone usage) in this house.”

Teach Critical Viewing Skills

Teaching media literacy skills at home can best be described in one word: Talk. Talk and talk and talk some more. In fact, the heart of media literacy lies in the power of discussion. A free-flow exchange of ideas gives children invaluable skills in the art of communication and provides numerous opportunities to try out ideas in a safe environment. Regular family media literacy discussion sessions, once or twice a week, over months or even years, can have a profound effect on a child’s understanding of screen content and its impact. Through these family interactions children will gain specific knowledge and skills which will help them throughout their entire lives to think, discern, and question media messages. These discussions can take place around the TV, before during, or after viewing.

Or they can occur spontaneously in the middle of everyday activities-while Mom drives the kids to the soccer game or as Dad folds the clothes. Just as parents ask questions about a child’s day at school, so too they can ask questions about a movie or TV program. Younger children can answer to the best of their abilities; older children can handle more analytical questions. Many parents find the services of a parent coach helpful if children have become so addicted to screen technologies, they no longer know how to respond to thoughtful questions. When moms or dads are supported by thoughtful questions by a parent coach, they find their inner strength once again to set boundaries and have more energy to engage their children in thoughtful discussions.

Use Your Creativity

So often we think of creativity as a special gift for a few people. Not so. We all have great creative ideas and implement them often in our daily routines-for instance, every time we knit an afghan, raise a garden, figure out ways to outfox a stubborn two-year. Why not think of fun, creative ways to deal with TV so we engage our kids with fun ideas? Put a sheet over the television and listen to your favorite show. How do the kids “see” the characters in their minds? How is this “viewing” experience different from the usual one? On a rainy day rent a video about a national park; watch and discuss it with the children while you eat a picnic lunch. Watch an older sit-com such as The I Love Lucy Show. Compare it to a more recent sit-com. How is it the same? different? Which is more interesting? Why? There are lots of ways families can break out of the routine and show their children how much fun it can be to think in creative ways about visual messages. It’s important to lead from your own curiosity-do activities that are fun for you. After all, it’s easier to spark our children’s creativity when we’re fired up, too!