Making kids media savvy

By: Élise Desjardine

Author: Canadian Living


Making kids media savvy

By: Élise Desjardine

Pretzels, pop and peanuts: What else would a family need to enjoy America's annual Superbowl? A censor, perhaps. Settling in for a good time, parents watched the much-talked-about 2004 halftime show that featured song, dance and…Janet Jackson's breast.

Alarms sounded, parents complained and apologies were made. Nudity shouldn't be displayed on prime-time television, folks said — kids are watching. What lessons will children learn when they see a celebrity having her clothing ripped away by a male pop star?

Debbie Gordon, managing editor of, a Web site that features media literacy workshops, wasn't too worried about her students (including her own two kids) being negatively affected by the supposed "wardrobe malfunction." The only alarms Gordon considered were the ones going off in her students' heads signalling an affront of commonly used shock tactics meant to evoke a publicity buzz.

"Media savvy kids were able to see the media toolbox hard at work during that halftime show - they weren't buying that message," she says.

Gordon says students of the media literacy workshops are taught to understand the real purpose and message behind advertising. They think through commercial messages critically and intellectually, rather than emotionally, and this enables them to separate fact from fiction and need from want.

Kids, she said, become media savvy by learning how to "deep read" these messages so they can recognize the media strategy behind the advertising first and then judge the product accordingly.

In other words, no one likes to be duped — not even kids. Gordon's workshops reveal to her students that the media manipulates them, and their wallets, by using highly choreographed advertising tactics that push emotional buttons and evoke a consumer response. Kids are especially susceptible to peer pressure so they can be easily blinded by products that promise acceptance. But media savvy kids are less likely to buy into, for example, the message that a particular brand of jeans will make them popular.

Click on the second page of this article for descriptions of activities highlight in their super savvy media survival courses. The activities are suitable for kids from Grade 3 to Grade 12. Just utilize the age- and gender-specific media and commercial topics that affect your kids.

Advertisers are adapting to our commercial society, targetting kids at an early age, and they argue that it's a parent's responsibility to control the amount of media kids are exposed to.

Don't allow your kids to remain defenseless against an onslaught of persuasion. Help them to recognize the truth by dissecting and re-creating the media's marketing methods.

Begin by watching, listening and reading aloud advertising in all its forms — TV, radio, magazine, newspapers, Internet, music videos and lyrics and anything else you can think of. Pick a few that really entice and intrigue your kids and then analyse them. Ask your kids to explain what the ad, words, images, etc…, are saying about the product. Is the advertising selling product facts or something else, like a concept or lifestyle image? Try to figure out what the advertiser was thinking, who their target market is and how they attempt to attract the consumer. Once your child recognizes the difference between the product itself and the advertising ploy, do two things:

1. Get them to write their own slogan and pitch that describes and sells the product itself.

2. Ask them if they're still intrigued by the ad.

Chances are, now that your children can see through a product, they won't be persuaded that it's something they need.

Encourage your kids to think about what constitutes "cool" and consider the media influences that make up the "cool" perception. Is it the new beer commercial highlighting two girls sharing lipgloss in a provocative way? Focus on the difference between external cool — what you look like/what you wear — and internal cool — what you believe, what you like, what your values are.

Gordon suggests gathering women's and men's fashion- and body-building magazines and summarizing the story headlines and editorial focuses. Calculate how many of the articles suggest ways to “improve” ourselves. Ask your child to write a list of things they would “improve” about themselves and then compare these to the suggestions in the articles. It's likely that the improvements will be similar to the messages "sold" in the magazines — thinner thighs, plumper lips, more muscular arms. Now explain to your child that part of the reason they want to improve these things is because the magazine is convincing them that they need to.

Another exercise that's “totally awesome man” is watching a few episodes of the Simpsons with your child. Analyse the Simpsons' foibles and think critically about the modern satire and its underlying messages about North America's “cool factors.” Concentrate on how the show uses irony and metaphors to critique our modern culture. sees irony as not just another way to be cool, “but rather an effective form of cultural criticism which is in line with … building media savvy kids.”

Feeding Frenzy
“Kid culture” is greatly defined by a junkfood mentality — the appeal of ease and instant gratification of both mouth and mind. It's not only pop and potato chips that poison their health, it's also the excesses of video games and Internet misuse. This nation of junkfood addictions challenge parents to convince their children that exercise and vegetables are the norm and that licorice doesn't constitute a serving of fruit.

Encourage your kids to think about what makes up a healthy lifestyle. Assess your meals, your levels of physical activity and the ways that computer-surfing can affect your health. Deconstruct the media influences that pitch unhealthy snacks and explain that such products shouldn't be denied, but should be moderated.

Sit down and, each you and your child, write a list of all the things that you like to do. Compare them and point out the things about each activity that will both benefit a person's physical and mental health as well as be detrimental to it. By writing a list yourself, you empower your child to understand an activity's pitfalls because they have a chance to analyse someone else's activity misdemeanors. Ask them what they like about the activities that aren't quite so healthy and then propose alternatives they can do that have the same appeal. For example, if your child loves to play gun-slinging video games, he or she can play laser tag.

For another exercise, compare foods your kids enjoy, like a fast-food cheeseburger, to the homemade version. Calculate the caloric and fat content in each and your children may understand why fast food should be taken out of their diet. Cook healthier versions of yummy snacks with your kids and explain the nutritional data of each ingredient as you go.

These activites will empower your children to critically interpret the media and make informed decisions. Assessing messages together with your kids also offers a wonderful bonding process that evokes continued discussion and debate between a parent and child. So next time a boob-headed celebrity pops out unannounced, your worries will be gone — along with the media's ability to manipulate your kids.

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Making kids media savvy