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Bombarded by Barbie

With kids exposed to 1,500 commercial messages a day, how can we fight back? Media literacy is the answer you haven't heard enough about.

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There are four television sets in the Della Maggiora home, but the screens most often stay blank. For this Durham family, TV is "not a freebie," as mom, Christine, asserts. Instead, 7-year-old Adam and 9-year-old Max do chores to earn blocks of half-hour "screen time" privileges that also extend to videos, movies and surfing the Web. The TV set the kids are allowed to use is relegated to a small, rectangular den off the main living room of their house in Eno Commons. (There's another tiny set in the brightly colored kitchen where Christine watches cooking shows, one left over from her college days that's now in her office, and a fourth in the master bedroom.)

Their parents monitor the boys' consumption of other media as well. "Rap music is OK but certain types are not," says Christine. "And they had to buy their own Britney Spears CDs. We certainly weren't going to buy them that."

She and Paul, both in their 30s, grew up as self-described "latchkey kids" who spent long hours watching TV and playing video games without much parental supervision. When they had children, they decided to do things differently.

Christine, who's taken only part-time jobs since becoming a mom, is the household's self-appointed queen of the screen, laying down the rules about what can be watched and for how long--and trying to offer alternatives. At one time, she was a staff member of LimiTV, a Raleigh-based nonprofit that works to alert parents, teachers and community groups to the harm too much TV can do to kids' grades, behavior and health.

Paul, who works full time as a computer engineer for Cisco Systems in Research Triangle Park, admits he lacks the same will power when it comes to the family's media diet. "We play this little game," he says. "Christine stands firm on what she believes in and I'll push the boundaries. The kids will want something and I'll want it and she'll say 'No.' But I've grown to where I really like the rules and I'm proud of them."

A decade ago, the Della Maggioras' efforts to reduce their kids' media exposure might have seemed quaint--well out there on the granola-eating fringes of the parenting spectrum. But as the volume and intensity of media messages aimed at young people has cranked up in recent years, the family's rules look downright tame.

How high's the dial? The Center for a New American Dream, a Maryland-based group dedicated to lessening the sledge-hammer impact of consumerism on the environment, reports that Americans are now exposed to more than 1,500 commercial messages each day--up from 560 a day in the 1960s. Advertisers are spending $3 billion a year on commercials beamed at younger and younger kids--more than 20 times the amount they spent a decade ago.

It's a ubiquitous cycle: Bombardment by Barbie on Saturday morning TV, violence even in movies rated as kid-friendly, military-style video games, toys tied to breakfast cereals tied to fast food tied to movie sequels. Even non-commercial media's not immune--just look at the marketing blitz surrounding PBS's Teletubbies.

This generation of parents grew up on TV and some don't see a problem. But many others are left feeling overwhelmed and outmaneuvered by a media barrage their kids are absorbing at a previously unimaginable pace.

"I feel if I don't take a stand, we'll all just fall into the abyss," Christine says. "It's not just TV. It's everything they're taking in."

With media messages more subtle and ubiquitous than ever before, simply turning off the set is no longer a solution. Instead, a growing number of educators and activists say the answer is "media literacy"--teaching kids to recognize and understand the images they see onscreen. The idea is to give kids the critical thinking tools they need to be "literate" in a media-saturated culture. So instead of banning MTV, the theory goes, parents should talk to their kids about whether the depictions of young people they see in the videos jibe with their own reality.

Though media literacy is now a goal in public schools in all 50 states, it's not being taught in a sustained, effective way.

"It's not specifically identified in any curriculum," says Ron Anderson, senior director of Wake County's Safe Schools/Healthy Students initiative and a member of a new community media literacy coalition called MediaSmart. "I see this as similar to character education in that we need to infuse it in all of our classes."

The literacy approach can work, supporters say and more people should know about it. And the stakes of not teaching it are high.

"It's hard to be a parent in the media generation," says Chapel Hill resident Kathleen Clarke Pearson, a pediatrician and founder of an early statewide campaign called the Coalition for Pulling the Plug on Media Violence. "Because every single day that parents haven't taken control of their children's media diet, these kids are growing up too fast, they're growing up afraid and desensitized to violence."

A movement whose time has come
Media literacy isn't a new concept in media theory or education, says UNC-Chapel Hill journalism professor Jane Brown, who's been studying these issues for years. But it's been given new urgency by the rapid swirl of commercial images being targeted to youth.

"Kids are now a consumer market in a way they never have been before," Brown says. "And the reason is the spending power of children and adolescents. The average kid in the United States today has some $64 in spending money per week of their own. And they have a lot of influence over what their family buys."

Commercial messages are showing up in places that were once ad-free--on movie preview screens, Web pages, school banners, even on the clothing children wear. An online report by the national Consumers Union called "Selling America's Kids" (www.consumersunion.org) describes how an American child can now wake up in a bed made with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle sheets, sit down to Breakfast with Barbie cereal, race off to school with her Simpsons book bag and settle down at her desk to watch a 12-minute news program with two minutes of ads, courtesy of Channel One.

As a result, Brown says, the lines between popular and commercial culture are blurrier than ever. And it's not just the ads that are causing alarm. A growing body of scientific evidence links excessive TV watching (more than 10 hours per week) to poor grades and higher levels of fear, obesity and aggression in kids. A 1994 study published in the journal Pediatrics found that in one year, an "average" American child can witness as many as 12,000 acts of violence on TV, many of them committed by attractive hero figures. Another study cited by Brown found that 40 percent of the sexual behaviors seen in prime-time TV comedies fit the legal definition of sexual harassment.

With the typical American child now spending more time watching TV, videotapes and playing video games than almost any other activity (an average of five to six hours per day for kids aged 2-18, says a study cited by Brown), the images they see are hugely influential.

"A lot of parents think that the worst thing about TV is it's a waste of time," says Steve Jurovics, founder of LimiTV. "But at its worst, it's much worse than that."

A host of experts and organizations now recommend strict limits on TV, especially for children under 5. (See "You Don't Have to Kill Your TV," p. 21) The American Academy of Pediatrics has even started giving its members a sample "media history" checklist for young patients that asks about the type and amount of TV they watch.

But what about other media now readily available to kids? How should parents negotiate the maze of options there? In the future, will parents have to spend all their time being screen cops?

Media literacy proponents, whose numbers now include some members of the media industry, say that's where the literacy concept can help, by training children--and parents--to be mindful of the messages they're seeing onscreen. One local example: Third grade teachers at McDougal Middle School in Chapel Hill have used a videotape called Buy Me That Too! to teach children about the persuasive methods toy advertisers use to get kids to buy their products--including showing the toys doing things they can't actually do once you get them home.

But appeals that are only about restricting what kids take in run the risk of making the forbidden products more attractive. Researchers stress that not all kids use media in the same way, for the same reasons, or draw the same lessons from what they see.

"We have to be sure we have a balanced response that's not overreactive," says Kate Howard Franch, program coordinator at SAFEchild, a Raleigh child abuse prevention group, and chair of MediaSmart." We need to help children comprehend what's out there."

And campaigns that only target some aspects of popular culture also risk being anti-democratic. The Rev. Paul Scott, a Durham minister who is leading an "Afro-centric" campaign to end sexist and overly violent messages in hip hop, notes that conservative drives against the music have too often been blanket condemnations of black youth culture. "They don't know 2 Live Crew from Public Enemy," he says.

At its most basic, supporters say media literacy is another avenue for teaching young people how a key aspect of their society works. At its most ambitious, proponents hope the movement will spark a new generation of activists who'll agitate for a media system that's more responsive to citizens and less beholden to commercial interests.

That's a tall order, but one many think is doable.

"This is a multi-faceted approach that can take place in the home, schools and the greater society," Clarke Pearson says. "Who would have thought 20 years ago that we wouldn't be allowed to smoke in a restaurant or that the cover would have been blown on the tobacco industry? Always, the first solution is educating people."

Media Literacy 101
Ask the experts about media literacy and the first thing they're likely to do is turn around and ask what you mean by the term. Definitions vary even among supporters, and there are lively internal debates about what works and what doesn't.

Still, there's general agreement that media literacy means teaching kids to "read" and respond to messages contained in images they see on TV, in movies, music videos and ads. "A media literate person doesn't know all the answers, but knows how to ask the right questions," reads an online factsheet from the Los Angeles-based Center for Media Literacy. "Who created this message? Why? How and why did they choose what to include and what to leave out? How is it intended to influence me?"

Whitney Vanderwerff, who heads the Greensboro-based National Alliance for Nonviolent Programming, says she describes media literacy in her presentations as "a string of infinitives: The ability to access, analyze, evaluate, influence and produce communication in all its forms." That definition encompasses a variety of teachable moments, from parents talking to their children about a commercial they've just seen, to a peer education group at Planned Parenthood parsing magazine ads for messages about teen sex.

When it comes to dealing with violent media images, Vanderwerff encourages parents to raise questions with their children about how those images stack up to real life. "I get more calls about video games than anything," she says. "There's one game where you get to run over people and that's how you score. One thing to do would be to say, 'Let's look at this in real life. What is happening here and what's not being shown? What would happen to you if you were in a car crash?'"

With older kids, Vanderwerff has used programs such as the Foundation for Media Education's Game Over, which shows how victims of violent videogames are most often female and non-white, and HBO's Hate.com, which explores how hate groups reach young people on the Internet.

Schools are a natural place to reach young people with the media literacy message. Currently, some form of media education is included in public school curricula in all 50 states--mostly in English, social studies or health classes. On paper at least, North Carolina is out in front, having made visual literacy a goal as early as 1985. In the state's public English Language Arts Curriculum, for example, students in grades 3-5 are taught to "use media and technology as a tool" and "use critical analysis to evaluate media messages," according to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction's official plan.

Still, experts say media classes in U.S. public schools are less comprehensive than those taught in countries such as Australia and Canada, which also have powerful media and capitalist economies. In those countries, media education is a more formalized part of a student's training. To graduate from high school in Canada, a student must have completed 30 percent of their language arts units in "media education."

Part of the difference lies in the fact that the United States has a less centralized education system, making it harder to deliver resources and training (and mandates) to individual teachers. And part of it, says Appalachian State University media studies Professor David Considine--who three years ago founded the country's first master's degree program in media literacy--are the back-to-basics benchmarks that now hold sway over U.S. public schools.

"If I have a principal who's interested mainly in test scores, how can I get him interested in media literacy?" asks Considine, who's chair of a national media literacy conference slated for Baltimore in 2003.

While media literacy may be outlined in curriculum goals, Considine says teachers are seldom trained or encouraged to make it a reality in the classroom. And in some areas, even the goal is lacking. "You look at the national social studies agenda and mass media are never even mentioned," he says. "They're still talking in that 50-year-old paradigm of the key institutions being the church, school and family."

That's not to say that the subject never comes up in the classroom.

Alan Teasley taught media literacy for years in his English classes at Durham's Southern High School--he just didn't call it that. Teasley and his colleague Ann Wilder taught students to "read" and write about messages contained in a variety of Hollywood and foreign films. They found students were more enthusiastic about writing when the topic was something they cared about--like film. And in their classes, students who hadn't necessarily been proficient in writing were often pleased to discover that they were skilled at "reading" media.

Wilder says kids also became more informed about how film works. "When you tell students that Sylvester Stallone is really only 5-foot-6 but he looks taller because of the angle he's filmed at, it's a revelation," she says.

The two teachers wrote a book about their experiences called Reel Conversations: Reading Films with Young Adults. They've produced viewing guides and have led numerous workshops for national educational organizations and conferences.

Locally, though, their work hasn't attracted as much attention. "The administrators basically left us alone," says Wilder, who retired last year and is now a consultant to the Durham school system. "And it's only just lately that we've had the textbook people calling to ask, 'Can we put part of your book in our textbook?'"

Teasley, who holds a Ph.D. in education and is now director for grants administration for the Durham school system, says there's still a lot of ambivalence about media literacy. "A lot of people feel, let's not expose the kids to more media," he says. "Where it's also a tough sell is when people think it's an add-on or a frill. But really, how you see yourself reflected in the media is a crucial issue for kids."

Though local school administrators insist that media literacy is "woven into" the curriculum, it's hard to see where those threads connect to form a consistent approach. One reason is the lack of community consensus about how to handle the subject of mass media.

"In our community there is such a range of values in terms of just trusting TV," says Bob Stocking, director of instructional technology and media for the Chapel Hill/Carrboro schools. "There are plenty of bumper stickers saying 'Kill Your TV.' Others don't seem as concerned."

Still, he adds, young people's expanding use of the Internet and other new "Information Revolution" media may provide an opening for raising the literacy issue in a more sweeping way.

"We're having to tow this line between wanting to provide kids with as much access to resources as possible--our school resource centers have twice as many computers as they did years ago. But we're not always able to monitor the kids," Stocking says. "It's important to train kids and teachers so they are equipped with the tools to make good choices."

Anderson, of Wake County's MediaSmart coalition, says that task shouldn't be left to the schools alone. His Safe Schools program got a federal grant that's helped them produce media literacy guides and conduct training sessions for parents and community groups, as well as teachers. The initiative also produced a 30-minute TV show that aired on WRAL-TV (which is a member of MediaSmart) about the importance of media literacy.

"This isn't just a school issue," Anderson says. "What schools do should support what happens in the family. These are really values issues that we need parents to think about so they can talk about them with their children."

Finding what works
Late on a muggy Saturday afternoon, a patchwork quilt of parents, teachers and students covers the wide, wooden porch of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke. They're here to celebrate the end of another session of Youth Document Durham, a summer program that teaches teenagers photography, interviewing and other documentary skills.

The crowd surges excitedly around exhibits of the work that participants have created during the three-week session. Mass media is a powerful unifying theme. In one room, a homemade CD that weaves rap music and snippets of street interviews about youth power plays on a tape deck. In another, teens have used photographs to create mock ads: "Get a grip on the smoothest, shiniest, most computer-enhanced hair," reads the pitch over a picture of a young Latina pinning back thick, wavy locks.

In the absence of more enthusiastic media literacy in schools, many community groups have picked up the ball. The Alliance for a Media Literate America reports that nearly 40 percent of media literacy advocates work in fields other than elementary or secondary education.

Unlike many community-based efforts, the Duke center's program isn't tied to a particular agenda--smoking or teen pregnancy prevention, for example. Instead, teachers concentrate on empowering kids to produce their own images.

"We start with the hands-on and build towards analysis," says Barbara Lau, the center's director of community programs. "That's the documentary process.

The center's been sponsoring a similar program called Literacy Through Photography in Durham public schools for more than a decade. It also helped teachers at E.K. Powe Elementary School get their own "Neighborhood Project" documentary unit off the ground. That project sends first and second graders, armed with cameras and audio equipment, out into their neighborhoods to document daily life.

The idea behind these programs is that effective media literacy should involve young people as producers, not just passive consumers of media. "What you're trying to do is get people to question what they see, question the images and motivations of media products," Lau says.

Amina Cliette did audio interviews and took photographs for the program's unit on youth power. "Working with the audio, I cut out a lot of what people said," says the 16-year-old Northern High School student. "That makes me realize you don't see the whole truth when you see something in the media."

But while few would argue with the aims of media literacy, the question remains: Does it work? Can media literacy really change the way young people respond to the onslaught of messages their culture's aiming at them?

Anecdotally, the answer is "yes"--at least in the short-term. One often-cited example is Florida's "Truth" campaign on teen tobacco use. Funded with money from the national tobacco settlement, the campaign made high school students advisors for a statewide media blitz, including ads that broke down the ways cigarettes are marketed to kids. The Truth campaign employed the same techniques advertisers use to attract young smokers--promotion, market research, targeting audiences, name-branding--to attack the message that smoking is cool.

In the first two years of the program (1998-2000), the proportion of Florida middle schoolers who said they'd smoked in the previous month dropped from 18.5 percent to 8.6 percent. For high schoolers, the percentage fell from 27.4 to 20.9.

Closer to home, the North Carolina Governor's Institute on Alcohol and Substance Abuse will soon release the results of a study of a media literacy program it sponsored in Durham schools last spring. In that program, students at UNC-Chapel Hill taught middle schoolers about the effects of alcohol and tobacco ads--including such stealth techniques as product placement spots in popular movies and TV shows.

But even staunch supporters of media literacy admit the jury's still out when it comes to the long-term effects of such training. Studies that would track kids exposed to media literacy over time are expensive, and the evidence just isn't in yet. And there are other questions--including whether programs like the Truth campaign ultimately make young people more fearful by showing only the negative effects of media.

Internally, the movement also has been debating whether media literacy programs sponsored by industry organizations such as the National Cable and Telecommunications Association and The Discovery Channel are "co-opting" media literacy by softening its criticisms of corporate media.

Another schism has appeared between those who want media literacy to concentrate mainly on warning kids about dangerous media messages, and those who insist that training must start by acknowledging the pleasure young people get from using media. (UNC's Brown describes this split as "inoculation" versus "liberation").

The disagreements highlight the risk that media literacy will become a movement that preaches mainly to the converted. And there are worries that under the broad umbrella of media literacy, conservative groups will be promoting their own aims--keeping talk of contraception or images of gay teens off the airwaves, or attacking black youth culture.

Supporters of media literacy say the strategy can be an alternative to censorship.

Robin Franklin, a teacher who started the Neighborhood Project at E.K. Powe Elementary School, has seen the damage too much screen time has done to the learning skills of some of her students. But she worries that a simplistic boycott stance will leave many more behind.

"Kids know a lot based on TV. It's our culture, it's how it's transmitted," says Franklin, a slim, pretty woman who has the clear diction of someone used to working with youngsters. "We're the keepers of that culture, so how are we going to say, 'You can't watch?' We're assuming that kids are going to be able to get that information elsewhere and not all of them will."

Brown, of the UNC journalism school puts it this way: "If we educate the consumers, we won't need the censors."

The homefront
Media literacy could go a long way toward helping children make sense of commercial media messages. But even supporters argue that it doesn't absolve parents from their responsibility to monitor what their kids are watching.

Christine Della Maggiora, for one, isn't ready to give up that role. Around her family's kitchen table, media debates are a lot less abstract. Just now, Christine's talking to Max, 9, about why he can't see the film, The Lord of the Rings. She feels it's too violent.

Max isn't going quietly on this one. While his mom slices up some fresh-baked banana bread, he makes his case.

"First of all, we've already read the book and second, I know someone who's a year younger than me who's seen it already," Max says, pushing blond bangs back from his eyes. "C'mon, Mom! It's PG-13."

His younger brother Adam looks up from an old Mad magazine he's reading.

There's a heartbeat's pause before Christine comes back with the traditional line (in response to the friend who's seen the film): "If he jumped off a bridge, would you do it, too?"

Although she counts herself as a supporter of expanding media literacy in schools and the community, Christine insists that's not going to let her off the hook. "We have all this pressure through the media to buy stuff and it influences how we see ourselves," she says. "But in the end, the job of creating your family is creating a refuge from the rest of the world. You have to make a refuge from the garbage." EndBlock

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