Media Education for the Family: Engage Mind and Use What’s Around You (Part Two of Three)

Media Education has taken hold in the US as a distinct and scholarly discipline. The Media Ecology Association just held it’s annual conference—this year’s theme, “Technology, Spirituality, Ecology.” Interesting, huh?

And as I write this, the National Association for Media Literacy Education’s conference is underway in Chicago. With the theme “Engaging Citizens, Building Community” the mission of the conference as explained on its website, “… is to explore the relationships between media literacy education, civic participation and community-building within our contemporary culture. Scholars, educators, media professionals, students, and activists interested in furthering media literacy education are encouraged to attend.”

What? Aren’t parents encouraged to attend, as well?

My first book, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1995 was Screen Smarts: A Guide to Family Media Literacy—now out of print. However, I compiled and updated 100 family media education activities from the book that many parents have found useful. The activities are listed by stages of development (birth through age 2, ages, 3-5, 6-10, 11-14, and 15-18) so that your child can participate in appropriate ways according to his/her brain capacities.

Media education came alive for me in 1991 at a conference at the University of Toronto. One workshop, in particular, made an impression.

The professor showed a 30 second Pepsi commercial, featuring a young Cindy Crawford walking into a bar, men gathering around her while she surprised them by ordering a Pepsi. We then told the professor what we saw—nothing earth-shaking—a pretty girl walks in a bar and orders a Pepsi.

Next came the thought-provoking part. He played the commercial again, this time stopping after each and every frame. “Do you see that light behind Cindy? Why do you think she is bathed in light while there is less lighting on the men?” (Makes her the focus.)

“And what’s with this guy? Why is he not part of the group? What’s he doing way over there at the end of the bar? What’s he looking at?” (Weirdly leering directly at her breasts.)

“Why is Cindy dressed in a halter top? Is it really summer? Look outside.” (It looks more like a fall day.)

And on it went. Until it became clear. Pepsi was selling its product by glorifying misogyny and appealing to men’s sexual fantasies.

By engaging strong emotions and intentionally bypassing logical thinking, Pepsi made its product seem “cool,” desirable—just like Cindy Crawford.

The other thing that stayed with me about this media education workshop was that in referring to the images, the professor called them “text.” Say again? No words appeared on the small TV monitor we watched—only visuals. “The text in this frame…” “Consider the text here…”

As a former high school English teacher, I could relate. Deciphering a 30-minute commercial was much the same as explicating a poem by Robert Frost or learning the implications of a Shakespearean metaphor. Engage mind and everything changes.

Now, there is no way I am suggesting busy parents today break down commercials into one-second bites to discuss with their kids (Although with today’s tech anyone can easily do this—perhaps older teens can make a project out of it?). What I do want to emphasize is the Engage Mind part.

In fact, this second practice (Practice #1: found here) for successful family media education is:

Family Media Education Practice # 2: Engage Mind and Use What’s Around You.

For instance, all around us are unrealistic portrayals of women’s bodies in movies, video games, magazines, and yes, today’s commercials, too. For instance, the average video game female is 5 feet 4 inches tall, has a 29-inch bust, a 22-inch waist, and 31-inch hips. As researcher Eric Rasmussen points out, “These highly unrealistic portrayals are so culturally-pervasive that young women (and adult women for that matter) are motivated to try to obtain these proportions, despite how unrealistic and unattainable they may be.”

Why? Engage mind and perhaps the purpose, intention, and reason shift to know and accept what is actually normal. A mass media culture has a way of making the normal seem abnormal and the abnormal seen quite normal. By helping our kids think through reality presented via media, they establish a normalcy north star within their growing psyches.

A Few Tips

Ask questions—a lot of questions.

Whenever we ask children questions, we engage their minds. The brain has nowhere else to go but to consider an answer or several possible responses.

For added bonus, make those questions about things you yourself are a curious about and you will see rapid child engagement. There’s nothing like a parent beginning with, “I wonder…” for helping children learn the art of thoughtful conversation.

Use Compare and Contrast as Your Go-To Technique

If you are thinking Compare and Contrast…I guarantee you will come up with many productive media education activities on the fly, you will amaze yourself.

I have Compare and Contrast so ingrained in my head from raising my two sons, that it won’t turn off even though we are now empty nesters. For instance, last night I watched MSNBC followed by Fox News to compare and contrast choice of newsworthy items, along with clarity of logical thinking. I learned a lot.

You can do the above with a teen today. Fake news, alternative facts, and how do we know what is real when NBA stars think the world is flat provide a treasure trove of similar media education potential.

Here are a few more ideas with the Compare and Contrast backdrop.

Compare Old with New

Let watch this classic Bugs Bunny cartoon and watch while it takes 60 seconds—a long 60 seconds for Bugs to tall from the sky. How does this compare with __________(favorite cartoon)? The fast pace of your favorite video game?

Let’s watch the 70;s version of Beauty and the Beast now that we saw the new one. I wonder what changes we will notice?

Over the summer, let’s watch a popular film from each decade starting with the 1920s and have dessert afterwards and talk about each one—then when we get to this decade, let’s consider how film has changed over all those years. What was your favorite decade? Why?

Do above for TV programs starting with 1950’s. Or video games starting with 1970’s.

Compare Different Media

After we play chess on this new board I bought, let’s play on our apps and see how that works. Which de we like better? Why?

After one hour playing Minecraft, spend one hour playing with the 3-D figures and setting up your imaginary world in the rec room. How is this same/different form playing on the computer? Which do you like better? Why?

Let’s read the book, listen to the audible of the book and then watch the movie of the book. This is an experiment in how we take in the story in different ways depending on when we read, listen or watch. We could talk about what we learned form this experiment all summer.

You may be gaining your media education/digital citizenship ideas from wonderful resources like Common Sense Media or Canada’s Media Smarts. Wherever you choose to look for family media education activities, know that when you use what’s around you to engage your child’s mind, you are raising thoughtful, discerning digital citizens—fully prepared to live fully in today’s world and take on the one to come.

Copyright, Gloria DeGaetano, 2017. All rights reserved.

(Part Three with Practice #3 coming in July.)