Everyday young people are bombarded with images on TV, movies and the Internet. In that media blitz they are often exposed to advertisements, both direct and subtle, promoting everything from the newest clothes to the coolest toys. But bikes and shoes aren’t the only products marketers are trying to sell to kids; many products that negatively affect child health are also being pushed, with some serious repercussions. For instance, research shows a direct link between increases in advertising of non-nutritious foods and skyrocketing childhood obesity rates.
But if children were more aware of the influential nature of media, would they be less susceptible to it?
The answer is yes, according to a recent study published in Journal of Children and Media, and co-authored by David Bickham, PhD, staff scientist at Boston Children’s Hospital’s Center on Media and Child Health (CMCH) and Ronald Slaby, PhD, senior scientist at CMCH.
“Kids who are taught to recognize the ways media try to influence their behavior are more wary, and put off by the promotions aimed at them,” Bickham says. “With guidance, grade school students have the capacity to become smart and savvy consumers of media.”
To help children better understand the ways media tries to influence behavior, Media Power Youth, a non-profit designer of media literacy programs, created an in-school curriculum for fifth graders. This program was designed to build the critical thinking skills necessary to process and resist potentially harmful portrayals of violence and advertising for unhealthy items like tobacco, soda and non-nutritional food. In just 6 weeks Bickham’s research with this program demonstrates it can yield very positive results and it is still being used by the school district where the study took place.
Massachusetts lawmakers recently introduced a bill that would make media literacy education available to students statewide. (Lauren Rubenzahl, EdM, program coordinator at Boston Children’s Center on Media and Child Health, testified before lawmakers in support of the bill.) Bickham’s research demonstrates that well designed media literacy programs can give young people the skills they need to stay healthy in the digital age.
But raising a new generation of media savvy children isn’t just the responsibility of the schools; parents play a vital role as well. Here are some tips to help your children safely use the media they’re exposed to.
- Preview websites, movies and TV you’ll see with your child. This way you are fully aware of what your children are being exposed to before they see it.
- Choose content with a purpose. Think about why your kids are going online or watching programs and choose content that teaches them things you want them to learn.
- Pay attention to what is being advertised. Do any companies sponsor the media? If so, what are they advertising? Remember, if it’s on the screen, your preschooler will see—and potentially internalize—the content.
- Use the Internet with a purpose. When you go online with school-age kids, don’t just browse, look for specific things with your child so they can see the practical applications of the Internet.
- If they see things that alarm you online or on TV, stay calm and initiate conversation about what they’ve seen. This will let your children know that they can talk to you about these subjects and reduce their curiosity about “forbidden” content.
- Use parental controls. If your tweens are exploring more media on their own—using the Internet or watching TV unsupervised—parental controls can help prevent them from accidentally seeing inappropriate material. Just remember, these controls aren’t failsafe and often won’t keep curious tweens from getting around them.
- Acknowledge their curiosity. Maybe your tween has mentioned that so-and-so has a girlfriend, or is becoming increasingly interested in programs where the characters are dating. If so, it may be time to talk about relationships. The more information you provide for your children, the less likely they will be to pick up mixed messages from media.
- Provide positive, healthful resources in a way that works for them. Teens are in the process of separating from their parents, so even though they’re curious about all kinds of things, they’re more likely to seek out information from their friends and media than to come to you. Depending on your teen, there are different ways to make sure they get positive health information. You can try opening a candid conversation about their questions and about where to get good information. You can leave some books in the bathroom, or leave a website open that he can explore when ready.
- Ask them to share their favorite music, websites, TV shows and movies with you. This can help you learn more about your teen and connect with their world. It also demonstrates that you respect their expertise in this realm, which can help open the doors to communication about it.
To learn more about the Media Power Youth program, its research and ways you can help young people become more media savvy, access this webcast where Dr. Bickham discusses his work.