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Parents and Media Literacy: Raising Critical-Thinking Children in a Media-Rich world.

By Simon Ringsmuth CIED 6183 November, 2012

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Abstract: The purpose of this paper is to examine current evidence with regard to how exposure to media can impact the development of children, and what role media literacy education can play in helping parents make good decisions for their children.

Introduction: Children today are growing up in an environment that is saturated with media, and are using media and technology from before breakfast until bedtime and beyond (Hobbs, 2011, p. 7). Youth are mass consumers of media, who watch an average of 1,500 hours a year of television (Armstrong, Chen, & Furger, 2002). With a media landscape that is vastly different from past decades, parents are often at a loss with regard to how they ought to expose their children to media and, by extension, incorporate media literacy into their parenting. While much research has been done regarding media literacy in formal educational settings, there is currently a dearth of scholarly insight into how media literacy should function in a home or family setting. One cause could be that, thanks to the generally poor state of media literacy education in the United States, parents have found themselves to be ill-equipped to tackle issues of media literacy in the home. According to Kellner and Share (2007), "Many in the US are not informed enough about media literacy to even consider it" (p. 1). Another cause could be that since parents and children approach media in vastly different ways (Hobbs, 2011, p. 8), the former simply has no frame of reference with which to approach media literacy with the latter. In order to understand how parents can effectively incorporate media literacy into the development and growth of their children, it is important to investigate media usage as it relates to child development and then examine some practices and principles that can be used to aid parents.

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Literature Review and Analysis In studying the effect of media and entertainment on child development, Agina (2012) found that "The research, up to date, still lacks a true understanding of the powerful effect of the communication between children, generally all users, and the content of the entertainment" (p. 1083). While this may certainly be true, there have been several studies in recent years that point to some emerging trends with regard to the impact of media exposure on child development. It would be premature to draw long-term conclusions at this point, but there is a growing body of research from which parents can draw in order to help make good decisions for their children. There is no doubt that children today are exposed to far more media than their counterparts at any point in history. In exploring parental media mediation styles, Barkin et al., (2006) found that American children ages 2-18 spend an average of more than four hours using electronic media daily (p. 395), despite studies that have shown excessive media usage to be linked to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity ("Media and Children," 2012). Garrison, Liekweg & Christakis (2011) found that 20% to 43% of preschool-aged children in the United States have a television in their bedroom (p. 30), which can lead to a host of potentially harmful effects: A bedroom television may increase opportunities to watch violent or frightening content, and adult-targeted television content has been associated with increased sleep problems in young children.18 In addition, because many families are using television as part of the child’s bedtime routine, television viewing may displace more soothing bedtime rituals. (p. 30)

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In addition to functioning as a gateway to violent or frightening content, Garrison et al. also found a clear link between the number of hours spent watching television and an increase in sleep problems and disorders in young people (p. 34). Jago et al. (2012) point out that an increase in screen-viewing time for children has been associated with an increase in obesity, unhealthy diet, poor mental well-being, and higher levels of cardiovascular risk factors (p. 150), but also show a direct link between the time parents spend watching television and the time their children spend watching television (p. 153). In other words, parents need to be careful they are setting a good example for their children with the media habits they follow in their own lives. The American Association of Pediatrics recommends that parents restrict children under the age of two from using electronic media entirely, and that parents establish screen-free zones at home in order to help guide their children's use of electronic media. ("Media and Children") Confounding the issue further for parents, there is now an entire market of products being aimed at young children, including TV shows and networks dedicated entirely to children's programming. Rideout, Vandewater, & Wartella (2003) point out the problem with this culture of media over-exposure: "Despite this plethora of new media aimed at very young children, next to nothing is known about how these changes have played out in young people’s lives" (p. 4). And therein lies the rub: despite the fact that our children are being exposed to more media than ever before, the effects of it on their growth and development are not yet understood. An increase in media literacy education would help parents guide their children in making good choices about the media they consume and create. With parents and children becoming more engaged with electronic media, it is critical to understand the impact of how this involvement affects cognitive and social development. Gentile and Walsh (2002) found that 58% of families with children have the television on during

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dinner (p. 158) -- a number that seems almost trite in todays' media-rich society with mobile devices and laptops offering far greater access to media than television alone ever could. They go on to postulate that this use of media presumably affects family social interactions, with media usage taking the place of what used to be regular verbal communication. Gentile and Walsh also found that children's school performance declines as television watching increases (p. 158), and with media experiences today such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter becoming an increasing part of the lives of children, the effects of media on academic performance are becoming increasingly critical. When studying this issue, it is important to qualify just what is meant by the effects of media on cognitive development. What are ways in which the effects of media can be measured and gauged? Kirkorian, Wartella, & Anderson (2012) offer an example to put this into context: At age two, the children recognized that the television world was contained within the television set but not until they reached age three or four did they realize that the television world could not affect them--that, for example, television characters could not enter their bedrooms. (p. 42) This illustrates a method by which parents and researchers can, in a sense, qualify and even quantify the degree to which media messages affect the cognitive development of children. To further illustrate the effects of media on children's cognitive development, Korkorian, Wartella, & Anderson (2012) use the example of a bowl of popcorn shown on a television set. Four-year-olds recognized that, when the television is turned upside-down, the popcorn would not fall out. But three-year-olds failed to understand that the popcorn is not real and has no connection to the television. They incorrectly said that the popcorn would fall out of the bowl (p. 43). It stands to reason that if children are unable to discern between a virtual bowl of popcorn

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on a television set and a real bowl of popcorn in front of them, they could easily draw similar conclusions regarding characters, situations, and emotional messages that are represented on a screen. While bowls of popcorn are one thing, drawing a distinction between commercials and other programming is another. Shifrin et al. (2006) found that children are exposed to 40,000 advertisements per year on television alone, which does not take into account the massive onslaught of online and mobile advertising that pervades young people's lives today (p. 2564). They also found that advertising is prevalent in more subtle forms such as product placement in movies, television programs that are specifically designed to target children, and even in schools (p. 2565). Advertising to children, they conclude, is a multi-billion-dollar-per-year industry that "can have a significant effect on young people" (p. 2565). As Korkorian, Wartella, & Anderson point out, children younger than five are unable to consistently make the distinction between televised programs and commercials (p. 43). This goes to show that commercial media is a big business, and advertisers are keenly aware of the effects that their commercial messages can have on children. To say that children are unaffected by exposure to media is to overlook the conclusions drawn by these and other researchers. Valkenburg (2000) notes several ways in which children's exposure to media is changing their development as well (p. 53). Her research shows that children today have more disposable income than their counterparts in past decades, and are less dependent on their parents while simultaneously more dependent on media and peer influences with regard to their buying choices. Furthermore, she offers somewhat troubling findings regarding how the media shape children's values and social development:

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Because of the wealth of persuasive messages meticulously targeted to specific child segments, children are less dependent on their parents for their learning about consumer values. Some researchers have suggested that the commercial media environment of today’s children might shorten the period during which parents are the exclusive socializing force in the lives of their children. (p. 53) This is important to know for parents today, who did not grow up with the same media environment of television, internet, social networks, and mobile technology as their children are now exposed to on a daily basis. Indeed, Shuler (2009) offers an interesting take on how the media landscape has changed in recent years with her finding that of the top 100 selling Apps in the iTunes App Store, 47% are aimed at children (p. 6). Rather astounding, particularly considering that prior to 2007 there was no such thing as an iPhone! But knowing, as the saying goes, is half the battle. For parents to be aware of the issues regarding their children and media exposure is one thing, but to seek out a solution is another. Fortunately, Shifrin (2006) has a plan. "One solution that is noncontroversial and would be easy to implement is to educate children and teenagers about the effects of advertising—media literacy" (p. 2566). Indeed, it would seem that the best solution for combating the effects of media on child development is not necessarily to take a protectionist approach, wherein parents simply keep their offspring from being exposed to as much media as possible. Rather, helping parents and children become educated about media literacy would help them make better choices about the types of media to allow in their houses and in their children's lives. While little research has been done to specifically address the issue of media literacy with regard to parenting, we can draw conclusions based on existing research on media literacy as it relates to educators as well as the general adult population. Rogow (2001) posits an inquiry-

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based approach to media literacy, which would have parents, educators, and media specialists at school develop an analytical mindset when it comes to making media choices (p. 12). Such an approach, she argues, would "promote active inquiry in every facet of school life" and, by extension, home life as well. She offers the following example with a school media specialist, which would just as easily apply to a parent at home with his or her child: The [Parent's] hunt for opportunities to integrate inquiry might begin by looking at instruction involving books and reading. When students come to storytime knowing that they will be asked, "What in the story (or in your experience) makes you think that?" they understand that they will be expected to give evidence-based answers, or in more developmentally appropriate terms, to name the specific clues they are using to form their ideas. (p. 12) This type of inquiry-based environment is not atypical of many homes today, with parents often asking their children questions about the world around them (i.e. "What sound does a cow make?" "What did you do at school today?" etc.). However, for parents to effectively integrate media literacy into their children's lives they would need to take a similar approach when dealing with the myriad of media sources which their children are exposed to, and often partake in, on a daily basis. One solution would be for parents to engage in critical media inquiry by asking their children about the shows they watch, the web sites they visit, and the interactions they engage in on social networks in order to develop a mutual understanding of how these media are informing the choices and shaping the worldview of their children. Despite the relatively poor nature of media literacy education in the United States today, such an inquirybased approach would help the parents understand more about media literacy while also helping them make good choices for their children. Another solution for parents struggling to help their

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children make sense of the media around them, and offer guidance for making good choices, is to help their children ask their own questions of the media they consume. By asking children to question the author, motive, bias, and intent of various media they will help them develop the critical-thinking skills necessary to navigate the vast landscape of media that exists today. Hobbs (1998) points out one difficulty in addressing media literacy education, which is that nearly every teacher has his or her own perspective on what media literacy is and how it should be taught. "Whenever media literacy educators get together, they always circle the wagons - and shoot in!" (p. 16). But rather than debate how media literacy should be taught, it is important for parents to be involved in helping their children understand the media they are consuming. In a home environment, parents can avail themselves of one of the most common approaches to media literacy, media arts in education. This school of thought involves helping students "value the aesthetic qualities of media and the arts while using their creativity for selfexpression through creating art and media" (Kellner & Share, 2007, p. 3). While so many children having access to such a vast array of media-consumption technologies such as tablets, mobile phones, and other electronic devices, what parents might not realize is that these same devices can also be used to create as well as consume media. Apple's iMovie software, for instance, comes pre-loaded on every Macintosh desktop and laptop, and is available for $4.99 from the App Store to install on iPads, iPhones, and iPod Touches. iMovie makes the creation of movies incredibly easy, and students can use the camera built in to their computer or mobile device for all their filming. Apple even offers a "Curriculum for Digital Media Creation" which comprises 16 discrete lessons that cover all aspects of movie production from storyboarding to producing a documentary. Such tools are incredibly valuable for parents to use with their children as methods of exploring media through the creation of media. Parents could help their

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children explore bias in news stories by creating short news stories with their children, examining a local event from multiple angles. Children and parents could work together to explore themes such as diversity in the media and the over- or under-representation of various cultural groups by creating media projects of their own using these simple and easily-accessible tools. One area of concern for parents involving media literacy has to do with the transmission of values. While conventional wisdom among parents might suggest that their values are often impressed upon their children, research has shown this to not necessarily be the case. Whitbeck & Gecas (1988) found that the relationship between parents' values and those of their children are very poorly correlated (p. 839). Perhaps adding to the concern is their additional finding that parents and children often assume value congruency when it often does not exist at all (p. 839). These findings have massive implications for media literacy in that parents who wish to impress their own values on their children with regard to the consumption, analysis, and even creation of media might be fighting an uphill battle. For instance, conservative parents are generally more likely to surround themselves and their children with conservative-leaning media sources (Manjoo, 2008, p. 45). As a result, parents who are hoping to impress their own value system on their children through the media they consume might be assuming that such a transmission is taking place when, as research shows, it is in fact unlikely. Parents who are better informed about media literacy, and more involved in their children's media habits, would be better positioned to help guide their children in making responsible media choices and ultimately open the path to dialog about values and ideas that the parents hope to pass on to their children.

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Conclusion Sargant (2004) gives a perspective on media literacy that is equal parts frightening and reassuring. There is, as yet, no agreed definition as to what constitutes media literacy, nor is the idea understood by most people or thought of as a problem. At its simplest, it can be described as 'the ability to access, analyse and respond (critically) to and benefit from a range of media'. (p. 28) This is frightening inasmuch as that the concept of media literacy, in our modern society that is surrounded and, in many cases, consumed by media, is still not well understood. However, for parents, this is reassuring in that media literacy need not be entirely understood and comprehended, so long as they are at least engaging in media literacy education with their children. Parents might not be aware of all the concepts involved in media literacy, but by engaging in even basic principles of media literacy with their children they can help them begin to make more responsible choices. It is clear that, given the cognitive development of young children, the American Association of Pediatrics' recommendations about exposure to screens and other media should be severely limited if not forbidden altogether. However, for older children who are engaged in such a vast array of media, parents need to be discussing issues with them and even helping them create their own media so as to understand the various ways in which messages are manipulated, whether intentionally or unintentionally. In any case, it is clear that with technology giving people ever-increasing access to all types of media, the influence of media on our society is only going to grow. It is essential that parents are equipped to handle this, and hopefully with an increasing awareness of media literacy parents will be in a better position to help their children learn about media and make responsible choices.

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Hobbs, R. (2011). Digital and media literacy: Connecting culture and classroom. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

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