Our children live in a media-saturated world. U.S. tweens (8- to 12-year-olds) consume an average of six hours of entertainment media every day, according to a report published by Common Sense Media in 2015. This figure excludes time spent using media at school or for homework. Using entertainment media is defined as watching TV, movies, and online videos; playing video, computer, and mobile games; using social media; browsing the Internet; reading; and listening to music. In addition, a 2014 report on advertising to children and teens found that children ages 2-11 see an average of 25,600 ads per year.
In the work I have done since 2001 developing Mark Day School's media literacy program, I have been on a professional quest to get children, tweens and teens to engage with the media around them more critically and with more curiosity. At Mark Day School we do this through our media and information literacy program. Parents can join this quest at home by incorporating a set of five simple questions into conversations about media. We have used variations of these questions with students at Mark Day School since 2001, adapted from the work of organizations such as the Center for Media Literacy, Project Look Sharp, and other early leaders in the field of media literacy education. The more children get used to answering these questions aloud in conversation with others, the more actively critical they will become of the media they encounter on their own.
5 Key Questions to Increase Kids' Media Literacy
Encourage your kids to ask these questions of the media they encounter:
Who created it? Can we tell who made it? It is not uncommon to teach children to identify and wonder about the authors of books. What about the authors of other forms of media? Sometimes media is created by a single person. Sometimes it is created by a whole team of people. Encouraging students to reflexively ask about the authors or creators of media--all media--is an important step in ingraining in students the idea that all media is created by people with their own biases, opinions, and intentions. The media we consume is the result of choices made by its creators. Older students should go beyond asking, "Who created it?" to asking,"Who paid for it to be created?"
Why was it created? Oftentimes identifying who paid for a piece of media is a significant clue in determining why a piece of media was made. Media is created for a variety of purposes, including profit, persuasion, education, and artistic expression. Questioning the purpose of a piece of media often unlocks insights into the techniques the media is using to achieve its purpose. Older students may begin to realize that the same piece of media can have more than one purpose. Also, the impact that a piece of media has may be very different than its intended purpose.
What techniques are being used to attract my attention? Media use identifiable techniques to attract attention: catchy music, humor, celebrities, beautiful people, promises of free gifts or discounts, likes, etc. The more we notice these techniques in action, the more resistant we may become to their effects. Often the techniques being used are a clue to the intended target audience of the message. Older students should ask themselves, "Who is the target audience?"
What techniques are being used to persuade me? Beyond just attracting attention, media use identifiable techniques to persuade the target audience to do something: buy a product, use an app, vote for a candidate, click on a link, believe something is true. Kids should be able to spot when facts are being used as opposed to when a piece of media appeals to emotions. Are kittens and puppies being used to make the audience feel warm and fuzzy? Are the people on screen dressed like scientists to make their opinions sound more reliable and scientific?
What's missing? Every piece of media has a point of view. Media creators make choices about how a piece of media is constructed. Media creators also make choices about what not to include in a piece of media. What facts are missing? Who is telling the story? Would someone else tell the same story differently? What consequences are not being shown? What happened right before the part of the story we are seeing? What happened right after? These questions help students to take different perspectives and to see how a different set of choices could change the message entirely.