Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Parent Essentials: Teaching Your Kids Media Literacy

Recent studies have shown that exposure to television increases a child’s tendency to be obese, violent, and withdrawn. Additionally, television is often blamed for such ills as a decline in reading scores and even the breakdown of moral values. So why would we ever want our children to watch television?

Perhaps the problem is not television itself, or even television programming. Perhaps the problem is too much unsupervised, unregulated viewing. Instead of simply turning the television off, we can use television as a teaching tool. Judicious, supervised viewing can help children develop their critical thinking skills.

1. Never forget that programming is there simply to help advertisers sell their products. No matter how good a show is, if people don’t tune in and if advertisers aren’t willing to sponsor it, it will be taken off the air. So in a real way, we can measure a successful program by how many people are buying the products advertised during its air time. For that reason…

2. Keep track of what commercials are shown during any television program. It is easy to determine who the target audience is, and knowing the target audience of any television program will give you insight into what the aim or purpose of the show it. It will never be simple entertainment.

As you watch television with your child, help him or her keep track of what commercials appear during different television shows. Discuss what the commercials are selling, and who might be expected to buy. De-mystify the commercial-to-program connection for your child.

3. Pay attention to family dynamics in television shows. For “humorous” effect, today’s television shows tend to display insults among family members, even from parent to child and vice versa, as normal family behavior.

As you watch these sitcoms with your child, comment on the inappropriateness of insulting comments. Also point out when family members treat each other with kindness and respect (if you ever notice that happening in a show).

4. Help your child understand the difference between “reality” and “fantasy,” at least as it is represented on television. Discuss unrealistic behaviors, situations, or results as you see them during a program. We tend to think children understand “real” and “make believe,” but they need help with those concepts.

5. In part, television can communicate without words. So teach your children the “language” of television, which includes music, lighting, costumes, props, camera angles, editing, and other techniques.

We can help children to recognize and name these elements, and to discover how makers of TV shows use these techniques to create atmosphere and construct meaning. (See attached worksheet.)

6. Use television programs to help children understand and appreciate literature. Television viewing can be used as a supplement to—instead of an alternative to—reading.

You can use television shows to help students understand the structure of fiction by treating it as a “story” with all the story parts: plot, setting, characters, conflict, and theme. You can even teach the parts of plot, following the “arc” of the storyline in the program.

7. Use the themes of television programs to discuss important issues with your child. Don’t assume that your children “get the point” of a story that deals with drugs, violence, or other social problems.

Ask your child what the “lesson” of the program was or how he or she might have handled a situation in the story. Sometimes it is easier to discuss troublesome issues in terms of a program on television, and it gives you a teachable moment in which to reinforce your values.

8. Limit television viewing. Even the very best television programs won’t help your children’s mental development as much as reading will. Reading will promote sustained concentration whereas television inhibits it. Reading allows more time to reflect and digest ideas.

It is much easier to discuss stories being read than it is to discuss stories being watched. Especially during their early years, while their brains are developing and literally learning how to learn, children need the focus and concentration that reading provides.

You can find our media literacy worksheets, along with our other resources, over on our LearnHub page.

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