“You’re Smarter Than That!” (Family Media Literacy Part Three of Three)

First of all, thank you for your patience! It’s taking me longer to get to Part 3 of Family Media Literacy with summer events, visitors, and my reluctance to put an end to this series.

I understand there is no end to family media literacy…it’s an on-going process. For 18 Years. (And probably beyond with the grandkids.) And while I know three blogs (Part 1 and Part 2) are tiny drops in the tech tsunami disrupting every aspect of your family’s life, I finally made peace with my internal rumblings and feelings of inadequacy.

These ideas have helped other parents. I hope they help you in some way as well.

So here we go with Part 3 of Family Media Literacy…(Which makes part 2: Engage Mind so much easier.)

“You’re smarter than anything you see on TV,” I liked to tell my sons. From the time they were little until they left for college, I wanted them to get the message that they are highly capable wondrous beings in charge of their own minds. They can interpret well anything they see and hear in mass media, because, they are smarter than that!

“I know you can think of a better ending…” of a cartoon, a TV program, a movie or a video game. We played the “alternative ending game” until the end of high school. As they matured, so did their sophistication of understanding narrative, plot, and the director’s influence on an outcome of a film. “It’s fun to think and you can certainly think.”

As preschoolers they could conjure a cleverer jingle to the commercials they sang to each other over morning cereal bowls. As they got older, you might hear me cajoling, “You’re as creative as Stephen Spielberg—or even more so. Did you know that?” “Notorious Big has nothing on you guys. You could devise clever raps, if you wanted.” “Sure John Williams is a genius—he uses his talents, just like you do.”

I justified all this mommy hyperbole as a way to put me on an even playing field with the big guns. After all, I was up against a giant industry-culture that peddled its goods 24/7 with sophisticated brainwashing techniques to keep my boys beholden to them—an industry-culture who didn’t know them, didn’t care about them as the precious individuals I knew them to be—it only cared to lure them into the world of the Internet, video games, or the latest tech tool, ensuring they become robotic consumer adults, preoccupied with the trivial, not interested in anything beyond themselves.

Well guess what? I wanted my sons to become creative, self-actualized, emotionally healthy, stable adults, capable of contributing to a positive future. And I knew that could only happen if my husband and I were constantly vigilant, continually a nag for expanding their life beyond the world of the screen. They wouldn’t grow into their optimal selves with anything less.

I was at war and I knew that each and every day. Now with my sons being those self-actualized kind, amazing adults I dreamed of, I giddily realize that I won the war. Sure, I lost a few battles along the way—they played violent video games at friends’ houses, for instance. But in retrospect even some of those battles I won over time. They finally admitted how boring they thought violent video games were and preferred sports or strategy games, instead. YES!

“What do you want more than anything else in the world?” When I ask parents that question, they usually first respond—“For my kids to be happy…To lead a good life, to find fulfillment.” Something along those lines. They don’t answer:

“I want my child to become a video game addict.” Or “I want my child to grow up depressed and suicidal.” Or “I want my child to be the world’s greatest bully.”

No. Parents want what’s best for their children. Period.

Yet, the link between screen overuse and child self-identity may not be directly evident, but it is there, nonetheless, as clear as summer sky. It’s so worth all the time, energy; all the boundary setting with screens and talks afterward when boundaries are crossed. It’s so worth attending to how our children think about themselves as smart, creative people in relation to their relationship with screen technologies. For when we do, we give them the great gift of discernment for media matters. And that serves them well as children, as teens, and for the rest of their lives. Case in point:

Kyrie Irving, NBA star believes the world is flat. You may have heard. What may be news to you is that middle-school science teachers are pulling their hair out trying to convince their students that Mr. Irving is dead wrong—and they are losing this battle.

One teacher “says he tried reasoning with the students and showed them a video. Nothing worked. ‘They think that I’m part of this larger conspiracy of being a round-earther. That’s definitely hard for me because it feels like science isn’t real to them.”’

These students don’t think they are smarter than Kyrie Irving—they don’t even think their science teachers are smarter than Kyrie Irving. And it sure seems like they don’t believe anyone is smarter than to Kyrie Irving when it comes to our planet’s shape.

Want to make sure your kids don’t fall for such nonsense found all too regularly in our media-saturated world?

Make family media literacy an every day priority and “Your smarter than that!” your mandated mantra. Believe me, you’ll win this war that way. I guarantee it!

Copyright, Gloria DeGaetano, 2017. All rights reserved.


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.)

Talking with Teens Beyond Media Literacy

Recently I had an opportunity to talk with some insightful teens beyond the traditional media literacy topics.

It all started when Brother Leroy Baylor contacted me to be a guest on his radio show for WHCR 90.3 FM—the voice of Harlem. I had enjoyed previous interviews with Brother Leroy with the release of both editions of Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill. A passionate advocate for youth, Brother Leroy is extremely knowledgeable about the link between violent video games and youth violence. It’s a pleasure to talk with like-minded souls who “get it.” And a great relief when I don’t have to defend my position on a radio interview. I can share the straight facts and have them both accepted and appreciated.

Knowing that we would have an energizing and interesting conversation, I readily accepted his invitation. But this time was going to be different from the other interviews, he explained. Fourteen and fifteen year-olds who are learning how to be radio hosts would question me. Brother Leroy went on to tell me about his new project with inner city youth—radio journalism for high school students. Impressive. (It’s hard to keep up with Brother Leroy, a father of five and grandfather of six who works tirelessly for youth in his community.)

On the call, my first host was a 14 year-old boy who came right to the point, “So, did you let your sons play violent video games?”

“OK, here we go,” I thought. “How to position this so I am not defensive and I don’t put him on the defensive as well?”

I first acknowledged that the games “back then” weren’t as violent as they are today, but that being said, I still restricted any violent ones. I also quickly added, my sons played violent games at friends’ houses anyway. When I caught them playing a game they brought home that was basically beating up other people, I played it with them—noting that it took no thinking at all to constantly punch someone, just excellent hand-eye coordination that luckily I have.

I also explained to my youth radio host that my junior-high sons quickly acknowledged that if mom can succeed at this violent game, surely they had better things to do. It wasn’t long before they were immersed in sports video games with a lot more strategy needed. They knew I couldn’t compete with them when actual skill was involved.

After I told this story, I felt the silence on the other end of the phone line. Like hearing water actually being absorbed by a sponge, I could tell my youth host was pondering what I had just said. Soaking in the information. He then quietly asked why I was so sure violent games were harmful.

I immediately went back to my experience of 1985 finding a seminal 22 year-old study on the dusty shelves of Suzzalo Library when I was teaching at the University of Washington. Completed in 1984, this longitudinal study by Leonard Eron and Althea Houseman from the University of Chicago stunned me when I first read it. Tracking kids from under age 8 to their adulthood, the researchers found that kids with a steady diet of TV violence in early childhood, became adults who were incarcerated for violent crimes and as adults were more likely to beat up their spouses or children. And their children then became more likely to become domestic abusers as well, and imprisoned for assault, even murder.

More silence while I heard the soaking in.

As the interview progressed I started channeling my inner high school teacher—communicating clear respect for the youth’s ideas while explaining my position with the assumption that it would be of interest to them.

And it was.

I included some media literacy ideas. One example is the ability to distinguish between gratuitous violence and sensitive portrayals of violence in which the viewer or the player aligned with the victim instead of the perpetrator. I gave the example of taking my underage sons to see Schindler’s List—a film that captures the horrific suffering of victims of the holocaust. I made a point to let my radio hosts knows that our family discussed this movie in detail afterward, comparing violent portrayals on the film and on video games—my sons had to consider whose side you are on in each venue.

While I covered a few media literacy ideas like this one, during the interview what struck me was that even more than the value of media literacy activities was the absolute need for providing a meta-level understanding to these curious, eager, and astute youth. For me, a meta-level framework includes two major pieces:

1.) The knowledge of how growing brains are more easily conditioned to feel satisfaction from violent media—the fact that brains aren’t considered mature until age 25 adds levels of complexity to human brain vulnerabilities when interfacing with screen technology.

2.) The extensive research—the fact that there are more studies showing media violence’s contribution to violent behaviors than there are studies linking smoking to lung cancer.

With my last youth host, an articulate, confident fourteen year-old girl, I spontaneously said, “You know, parents are so alone in all of this. Parenting with all the problems with screen technology is unprecedented—there has never been such daily parenting dilemmas as there are now. It’s really hard. Moms and dads are stressed and overwhelmed. Parents could use the help of teens like you and your friends, here—your leadership in sussing screen technology wisely could make big positive differences.”

She wholeheartedly agreed!

Copyright, Gloria DeGaetano, 2016. All rights reserved.

The Virtues of “Vice”

Vice, the HBO news program that brings “enlightened information,” is fast becoming a Friday-night staple for my husband and me. If we can’t watch it then, we record it. (It’s also available anytime on the Internet at your convenience on the program’s website.) If I had teenagers at home (my sons are now adults—well-functioning—I am happy to say!), I would sit down and watch Vice with them. 

Why? Vice has virtues for teach teens media literacy.Vice provokes fresh perspectives about current events around the world and often nudges us out of our comfort zones of first-world complacency. Its two fifteen-minute segments take on events around the world that either are not covered at all or are covered sparingly in mainstream media. For instance, I am aware that there is a drought in Texas. But after watching a piece on Vice about it—I had no idea about the extent of the problem. Seeing images of a lake now turned into a mud puddle did the trick.

But watch a few Vice episodes first so you can determine if your teens can handle the topics and the often graphic violence showing real inhumanity—not the glorified, contrived graphic horror kids see all the time on video games. The violence here can pain deeply, leaving us sad and feeling disempowered. But since Vice makes you easily empathize with the victims, after each viewing, it’s also natural to think: “Now what can I do to make this world a better place?”

So if you check out Vice and decide it’s a “Go” with your teens, the media literacy educator in me encourages you to keep in mind two things:

Lots of Food for Thought Here

HBOViceShaneSmithShane Smith, its founder and host, uses an old-school journalism approach to uncovering information in order to show diverse sides to contentious issues.

Your teen may not agree—and that’s OK—even to be expected. The key is to use the Vice content to ask questions that will require higher-level thinking skills.

Here are some for starters:

What do you think you are really reacting to here? How this content provoke such a strong reaction in you?

Think about XXX and let’s talk about this again in a few days, after we both have had time to let this information sink in.

What did you learn that you didn’t know before?
What won’t you soon forget? Why?

Was this unbiased reporting? Why or why not? How do you know?
If you were the journalist and had this assignment, how would you have done things differently?
What’s left out that you would still like to know?

It’s Never One Thing

Vice is a great prompt to help kids get in the habit of “systems thinking” and out of polarity, black/white thinking. By showing various sides to a challenge, the viewer usually sees how complex the challenges—and the answers—really are. Because Vice gives more of the “whole” of the problems facing our world, our kids have a wonderful opportunity to think carefully about the context in which the problems, and the solutions arise. As Jamshid Gharajedaghi states in his excellent book, Systems Thinking: Managing Chaos and Complexity, “No problem or solution is valid free of context.” While your teen may not understand this notion completely, they will see quite clearly in the images and through the reporting on Vice that there’s more to a problem than one initially might think. And that is a good beginning tutorial for learning to apply systems thinking to complex problems—a necessary skill for them as adults living with increasing complexity at every turn.

Although Vice has garnered criticism for putting James Murdoch on its board with News Corp. owning 5% stake in Vice, I have to agree with Shane Smith: “…to build a global media brand, it’s almost impossible to do it alone.”

Did Shane sell out to the very corporate structure he often criticizes on Vice? That’s a question with many layers—complex to be sure. Using resources from the Murdoch wealth may have been a tough choice for him—or maybe not.

For now, I’ll give Shane Smith a lot of kudos for delivering such a thought provoking show. And keep watching Vice to better understand the bigger picture and to practice becoming a better systems thinker.

And…If News Corp. ever owns 50% or more of Vice, well, then I may rethink all this entirely.

 Copyright, Gloria DeGaetano, 2014. All rights reserved.


Systems Thinking: Managing Chaos and Complexity, Jamshid Gharajedaghi, Elsevier, Inc., 2011, p.31.