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.)

Parent Practices for Family Media/Digital Literacy (Part One of Three)

Spring’s blossoming of new life brings opportunity for refreshing your family media/digital literacy menu. “What menu?’ you may ask. “Family media literacy sounds too complicated and too much trouble for what it’s worth.”

I totally understand. It definitely can be. If you are pressed for time, read no further and go here for 100 Family Media/Digital Literacy Activities.

They are categorized into general ideas for all ages, and then specifically for ages 3-5, 6-10, 11-14, and 15-18. I compiled these over the years and now share them with parents I work with in my own coaching practice and also with the family professionals I train to become certified parent coaches.

If you would like to learn three practices to integrate family media/digital literacy into your routine, read on!

As an overwhelmed single mom with two rambunctious toddlers 21 months apart, I knew media literacy was crucially important because of the research I was doing—but where to begin? One night, lying in bed considering this, I thought of Stephen Covey’s famous admonishment, “Begin with the end in mind.” OK, that made sense to me.

So over a few weeks, I developed my END. (I wrote it down, read it regularly, thought about it often.)

I wanted my sons to grow into adults who:

  • Used all forms of media (including paper and pencil!) for healthy purposes for their own well being as well as for the well being of society.
  • Questioned everything they saw and everything they interacted with on any screen.
  • Continually deepened their understanding of the challenges of staying human in a mass media society and their knowledge about how to stay human.
  • Were conscious and conscientious about the fact that mass media and technological devices are owned by a few who need our dollars to exist—an industry mass culture has goals and priorities that don’t always fit with what’s best for humans or for society.
  • Know their own abilities, strengths, and talents, AND understand themselves as creators who go out and create!

As I consider my now adult sons, I am happy to report that I was able to accomplish these goals—and to my relief and surprise—with a few simple yet focused intentional practices that I am going to share with you.

Interjecting family media/digital literacy into my daily routine with the boys wasn’t as difficult as I had imagined. Keeping my intent to raise savvy screen-smart kids at the forefront of my mind each day helped a lot. Soon their ideas contributed to mine and we found ourselves synergistically increasing their media/digital literacy skills—each day, until they left for college.

Practice #1: Control Screen-Time

Teaching kids media/digital literacy skills can only succeed if we first control and manage screen time. Children and teens addicted to screens won’t be teachable for media/digital literacy. Keeping to sensible guidelines for each age and stage of development enables the growing brain to mature optimally. It prevents them from experiencing the significant negative consequences—and there are many.

If you don’t yet understand how overuse of screens impacts children’s and teens’ development on multiple levels, I highly recommend Dr. Victoria Dunckley’s book, Reset Your Child’s Brain: A Four-Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen Time.

As an integrative psychiatrist, Dr. Dunckley has pulled together the research in a most comprehensive, yet readable way. She tells it like it is and doesn’t sugarcoat the disastrous effect screen overuse has on the developing brain and central nervous system. I wholeheartedly endorse her book for parents who want solid, practical ideas for reducing screen time, so children and teens get their lives back. (As parents do as well!) Reading her book can be a wise first step onto an avenue for significant and sustainable changes.

Dr. Dunckley also posts blogs for Psychology Today. In one of her blogs, she provides six physiological mechanisms that explain electronics’ tendency to produce mood disturbance. If you are always in a battle with your child or teen over screen use, read this one for a better understanding of what is happening and why.

And if you need further evidence, I offer a reading list for interested parents, which includes books, research articles, and websites that offer compelling information and lots of practical strategies. You can contact me at to request a copy.

So…what’s the best screen-time that supports your child’s optimal development and provides the best foundation for teaching media/digital literacy skills?

I highly recommend:

No screen-time for infants through age 2: (Toddlers Ok to face time with Grandparents, of course—but no TV time, no apps for little ones, no I-Pads, no video games—no screen-play at all.) Consider the information in this article before you make any decisions.

Ages 3-5: No more than 1 hour a day, and in three 20-minute increments would be ideal. The rest of young children’s waking hours must be spent in physical, movement, sensory, and imaginative play experiences. No I-Pads, no apps, no video games.

Ages 6-10: No more than 2 hours a day—less if your child spends more than an hour a day on a screen at school. The detrimental effects on posture, eyesight, and general health continue to mount—even business people have started speaking out about the growing concerns.

And for this age group: No Video Games. Radical, I know. But since I know the vulnerabilities of the young brain and how those vulnerabilities create a major risk for screen and/or video game addiction, I cannot in my integrity make any other recommendation. I also discourage giving children cell phones—at least smart phones. There is no good reason in line with their optimal development as children, ages 6-10, to have access to the Internet 24/7. If adults have huge problems resisting the small screen of their phones, imagine the burden owning a smart phone puts on our children? And, some experts think smart phones may even be changing the human race—certainly young children cannot be expected to use such a formidable device wisely.

Ages 11-14: No more than 2 hours a day—less if your child spends more than an hour a day on a screen at school. Non-violent video games may be helpful learning tools at this stage. No social media accounts. Why? There is no good reason in line with their optimal development for children in this age group to have access to social media 24/7.

Ages 15-18: By waiting until age 15 for a social media account (and for a smart phone, ideally), parents have ensured that they have done everything possible to prepare their child’s brain/mind/body/will and spirit for handling the challenges of 24/7 access to social media and the Internet. And I continue to recommend for this age range, too only non-violent, age appropriate video games. Please see my book (with Dave Grossman) Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill for detailed explanations of the research that may help you understand why I am so firm on this.

I know the above may not sound very do-able. But they are based on my experience helping families with this issue, and what I know works best. I also know you will decide on your guidelines. My hope is that if you see your child acting aggressively, misbehaving, getting poor grades, no longer interested in anything other than screen play—that you then take my recommendations seriously. Limiting screen time will make a positive difference for you and your child—I guarantee it.

Let’s now consider some ways to get started reducing screen time that may work for you and your family:

How to mange screen time may be the major question of most parents today. Having worked with thousands of parents, please know I understand your frustration. In fact, my own parental pain around this issue prompted me to jump into this work in 1987 (You can read about my story here) and to begin the Parent Coaching Institute in 2000.

So where is your pain leading you? What is it whispering? Shouting? Urging?

What is the next step that’s right for you? I don’t know what that is. Only you do. Perhaps one or more of these suggestions can be a breakthrough starting point for you:

1.Try a small change and do it as regularly as possible. For instance, trimming off 15 minutes of screen time each day gives your child 105 more minutes a week to spend in the real world. You never know what s/he will think about do, understand, or conquer in those 105 minutes. In one year you have given back 5,460 minutes or 91 hours. Over the course of 18 years, you have gifted your child with 1,638 hours of non-screen time or better put, real-life time.

2. I am a big fan of regular family meetings. With these, you discuss limits, boundaries, and the reasons for them so that during the upcoming week—when life becomes hectic—your child knows your expectations and understands your rules.

3. It’s so much easier to enforce the hard stuff when there is a lot of good stuff going on each day between you and your child. In my book, Parenting Well in a Media Age: Keeping Our Kids Human, I explain five vital developmental needs that often get short-changed in our media/digital culture. I devote a chapter to each with practical ways to implement them into your busy day. When children’s needs are met, it is so much easier to set boundaries with them!

4. Also in that book, I invite you to explore who you really are as a parent—what are your values and priorities? What are your bottom lines and non-negotiables? Taking time to examine “the parent within you” gives you the necessary fuel for the times when you have to set your foot down.

5. My final suggestion (for now) has to do with creating space for awe to show up in your child’s mind and spirit. Human life in our natural surroundings naturally elicits a sense of wonder—an enchantment with nature, for instance, is one of the best immunizations I know of to prevent screen addiction. How much time does your family spend outdoors? Does your child/teen seek (nag you for?) time outside in play, hiking, or walking the dog? If not, starting here would be an efficient first step, since your child’s relationship to nature will healthily impact his/her relationships with self.

In her book, A Sense of Wonder, Rachel Carson, an early environmentalist and the prescient author of Silent Spring, writes:

“A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement…I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the soil. Once the emotions have been aroused — a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love — then we wish for knowledge about the subject of our emotional response. Once found, it has lasting meaning. It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate.”

As you “pave the way” for your child to enter adulthood equipped to manage all forms of screen technologies as well as virtual reality, wearable devices, robots, and who knows what else, I invite you to ask yourself:

“What is the END I want to keep in mind NOW?”

Copyright, Gloria DeGaetano, 2017. All rights reserved.

(Part Two outlining Family Media Literacy Practice #2 coming soon!)

We Can Make Life More Fulfilling Than a Video Game—But Will We?

When helping parents with media-related issues, I find often the core of every digital dilemma to be, “How can I make life more fulfilling than his video game or her social media time?” “All he wants to do is on-line gaming. He used to love to play the piano, but now I can’t get him to sit down and practice.” “She is such a great artist, but she seldom draws anymore—she’s always texting her friends.”

Put bluntly, for most parents, it’s screens vs. life and screens are winning, hands down.

Case in point: A “new” study released yesterday by Common Sense Media finds that teenagers (ages 13–18) use an average of nine hours of entertainment media per day and that tweens (ages 8–12) use an average of six hours a day, not including time spent using media for school or homework.

I put “new “in quotation marks because this study is really a mirror image of past countless studies that reveal the same thing: Kids keep spending more time with screens and less time doing anything else, including classroom time or talking with parents. I have observed this disturbing trend since 1985, when I began my adventure into media literacy.

(These days I often feel like the crazed guy in the movie, Network, who shouts out of open windows to anyone who will listen: “I’m mad as hell and I can’t take it anymore.” If you don’t know this film, check it out sometime and you’ll see what I mean.)

Back to…Another case in point: On Nov. 2, the New York Times reported on a study that showed 75% of parents gave tablets, smartphones or iPods to their youngsters before the age of 4, and many of the children had used the devices without adult supervision.

The article went on, “…experts say the surprising result adds to growing evidence that the use of electronic devices has become deeply woven into the experience of childhood.”

“Surprising result?” You got to be kidding? What wormhole had this author just come through?

Hand-held devices in the hands of babes is an issue that has been escalating and in the news since say, at least 2011. In 2012 I wrote pleading odes about this problem in my book Left To Their Devices, What’s Left?

While no surprises, there is irony.  media literacy week

This week is Media Literacy Week. A week set-aside to promote the honorable and most necessary vital need in a world of screen technology–a week, according to Media Smarts of Canada, devoted to highlighting “the importance of teaching children and teens digital and media literacy skills to ensure their interactions with media are positive and enriching.”

Enriching is good. Positive, imperative. Therefore media literacy is good and imperative.

When my first book, Screen Smarts: A Family Guide to Media Literacy, was published in 1995, I was thrilled. But after 25,000 copies were sold, Houghton Mifflin decided not to re-print it—media literacy was just not known well enough at the time.

But thankfully times have changed drastically and today media literacy seeps in all sorts of cyber crevices for parents to support their children in the age-old quests of controlling screen time and restoring life to front and center.

What is Media Literacy?

Media literacy, and it’s important, cousin, digital literacy, means using media and digital devices purposefully, just as a print-literate person reads a book or a magazine, a college text or an app chart for specific, various reasons. While a print-literate person reads words; a media literate person reads images as well. Using analysis, evaluation, and higher level thinking skills, a media-literate person interprets the subtle messages and the overt claims visual messages convey. If we boiled down media literacy for our children and teens, I think we would find five basic skills that we would like them to acquire:

  • Conscious, intentional, self-directed, limited use of all forms of screen technology.
  • Ability to critique visual messages and understand their intent and intellectual and emotional impact.
  • Ability to communicate facts, ideas, and thoughtful opinions about media images.
  • A thorough understanding of media production techniques to fully appreciate how such techniques as camera angles, lighting, cuts, etc. impact the messages being delivered.
  • Ability to make various forms of media as communication and creative expression.


Busy parents can think of media literacy as: Talk. Think. Make.

There are plenty of media literacy organizations that provide excellent resources to aid in media literacy discussions. Many also provide games and activities that will help youngsters and teens alike think more critically about all types of media content and all facets of their media use; and also provide fun creative ideas for kids to make their own media. In the 2014 version of my book on media literacy to counter media violence (with Lt. Col. Dave Grossman), I provide an extensive list of media literacy organizations. Two other resources that I came across since then are Raising Digital Natives and the Game Changer Movement.

Devorah Heitner, PhD is the founder and director of Raising Digital Natives, a resource for parents and schools seeking advice on how to help children thrive in a world of digital connectedness. She is the author (with Karen Jacobson) of the curriculum, Connecting Wisely in the Digital Age, for students in grades four through eight to identify, analyze and solve common problems they will face growing up with technology.

Dr. Heitner’s blog posts are highly informative. A recent post discusses the importance of creativity, emphasizing the “make” part of media literacy. Her helpful suggestions include: What about watching a YouTube video about how to play Minecraft vs. making a “how-to” video on YouTube about Minecraft strategies? Even though they are employing the same platform (YouTube), the activities are completely different (passive vs. active).”

It seems Dr. Heitner is in her element and is a treasure-trove of media/digital literacy ideas for parents and schools.

Erik Lehman, founder, is a passionate soul on a mission behind the Game Changer Movement. A single father, fed up with violent video games he asks and dreams:

“WHAT IF we could collectively, and collaboratively create a gaming platform that redirects our youth towards playing games that answer the large questions and challenges that our world needs us to address including; global warming, water scarcity, renewable energy, and poverty?

“The Game Changer Movement aims to create a community of at least 1,000,000 youth who are courageously willing to change their game and redirect their violent gaming time to games that make a real difference in the world! With sensor technology and the internet of things, we are going to focus on the intersection of where the real world meets the virtual world.”

This is media literacy on a massive scale and I share Erik’s excitement over the implications of such a movement. I’m all in!

So, Can We Make Life More Fulfilling than a Video Game—or any screen time for that matter? Absolutely yes, we can.

Will we? The jury’s still out on that. But here’s what I know for sure:

There’s enough medial literacy resources on this one blog to keep a person busy for a lifetime; enough on the web for several incarnations. And the reality is: We don’t have to do everything. We just have to do something.

Talk. Think. Make.

Choose one everyday, consciously and intentionally. Implement with a child or teen consciously and intentionally. And there you have it! We would impact the growing trend of mindless screen use and tragic internet/video game addictions. Our kids would live whole heartedly humanely with screen technology rather than for it.

Put simply:  If we all do something, anything is possible—even life time becoming more fulfilling than screen time.

Copyright, Gloria DeGaetano, 2015. All rights reserved.