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The Impact of Media: Teaching Teens to Think for Themselves

Susan M. of St. Louis, Missouri has a seventeen-year-old son and a fourteen-year-old daughter who spend their after-school hours listening to music, talking on the phone, and using Facebook … all at once. “The media alienates them from me and keeps them occupied 24/7 with their own agenda,” Susan sighs.

According to a 2005 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, young people spend just under six and a half hours a day “media multi-tasking.” That’s about forty-four-and-a-half hours a week, more time than they spend in school.

The media messages that occupy a teen’s attention increasingly feature sexuality, violence, and substance abuse, as well as manipulated “reality show” story lines and unrealistic fitness and beauty stereotypes. “The media tells them that drugs are cool, sex happens all the time and at an early age, and that violence is acceptable behavior,” said Susan. “Hopefully, our family’s open communication and our basic values will prevail in their real lives as opposed to the fantasy media life they experience.”

Susan’s concerns are clearly those of millions of parents, whose teens seem deluged with messages from the continual noise and pressure of media. How do you make sure you’re still being heard through the static? Breaking the electronic hold and reconnecting with your teen requires commitment and a new set of tools. Call it media literacy.

What is Media Literacy and How Do I Get Smart?
Help your teen objectify the lifestyles and values that are represented in the media, and identify how these messages are used to entertain, persuade, or sell a commercial product or an idea, from beer to ways that women are perceived. Once your teen begins to crack the code and question how the media works, he or she may be more empowered to make critical evaluations and independent choices.

First, you need to know what they’re watching. “It is important for parents to partake in the media that their kids partake in,” said Sherri Hope Culver, Director of the Media Education Lab at Temple University. “They need to educate themselves so they can make good, effective decisions.” Ask your teen what he’s seen or listened to lately so you can stay current. Watching popular YouTube videos, playing Halo 3 on Xbox or browsing the profiles on MySpace may open a window into your teen’s media experience and help you shape his or her response to it.

A good strategy is to use controversial content as an opportunity to discuss your family’s values and how to judge what’s right and wrong, what’s real and not. “Learning moments happen while the event is actually going on,” said Mitchell G., a father of three from Washington DC. Mitchell was watching a Washington Redskins football game with his sixteen-year-old son in which the team was mourning Sean Taylor, who had just been shot and killed. After the somber tribute, the network cut to a commercial for a violent video game with images of gunmen shooting at people. “My son and I just looked at each other and shook our heads. Here the NFL is trying to promote non-violence and the first thing they do is have an ad that does the exact opposite thing.” The irony of the situation got father and son talking about the casual way in which violence is portrayed on television, and how that translates to real life.

Clara G., a New York mother of four, agrees. “The minute my oldest daughter became computer literate, so did I. I feel that as a parent you cannot fall behind or you’re at a loss.” Recently, her seventeen-year-old daughter invited her to watch the MTV show “A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila,” a dating show about a bisexual woman. “That opened up a discussion where she asked for my opinion and let it resonate with her,” said Clara. “If you have a good dialogue then they’ll make good judgments even if you’re not there.”

Social Networking and the Messages Teens Give and Get
Interactive websites like MySpace, Facebook, and YouTube serve as the newspapers and gathering places for this generation, and teen members are riveted by the content they see and the content they share. The more media input many teens get, the more they crave, until the multi-tasking whirl of information is nothing so much as background noise.

“I can’t even go to sleep without my TV on,” said Clara’s son, Tory, age fifteen. His fourteen-year-old friend Derek O. agreed, “When I do my homework, I find that if I’m just focusing on my essay, I do worse because I’m so extremely bored. But I usually have my IM open and I have my music on so while I’m writing I can keep myself occupied.”

How Media May Help Kids Learn
How is this hyper-stimulating environment affecting a teen’s cognitive development? “We know for sure that there are impacts on attention, memory, comprehension, and communication skills development,” said Renee Hobbs, Professor at Temple University and Founder of the Media Education Lab. “The nature versus nurture debate is alive and well in ADHD studies. There was one really good study that showed for every additional hour of TV that the child watched at two, there was a dramatic increased likelihood of having ADHD symptoms at seven. And we don’t think that stops at age seven. That research provides a really good justification for those parents who want to limit the amount of time that children spend with screen media.”

Although many parents, and even some teens, see evidence that multi-tasking takes a toll on productivity and performance, there are some children who thrive and succeed in this fast-paced environment. “The current thinking is that this is an individual differences phenomenon,” said Hobbs. “It looks like multi-tasking might be interacting with cognitive style, or learning differences, or other individual differences in the child.”

The peer pressure on teens to stay on the media treadmill is undeniable. Sheryl S., a Boston mother of two teens, adds, “Every teenager I know is hooked on the multi-tasking and media hype. If you aren’t doing these things, you aren’t cool.” Lisa G., seventeen, admits, “I guess it never really stops. It’s just always interrupting you.” Could she turn it all off? “No, no, I could never do that. Because when you’re so used to just being in constant contact with everyone, it’s hard to be away from it. It’s what I’m used to.”

Teens Create Their Own Media
There are some positive outcomes from this media saturation. A 2007 Pew Internet and American Life study reported that 57 percent of online teens currently create content for the Internet. That includes twelve million teens who are inventors of Web sites; creators of artwork, photos, stories, and videos; authors of blogs and online journals; and artists who remix content found online into their own version of cyber folk art.

Even celebrity culture may serve as an object lesson and inspiration. According to Convergence Culture, by Henry Jenkins, Media Studies Professor at MIT, teens’ “fandom,” their attachment to celebrities, musicians, and athletes, may motivate them to create and perform themselves.

Tory G. has a MySpace page for his band where he posts videos and blogs. The band performs at charity events around the country motivated by the message “diversity, understanding, respect, and multiculturalism.” The Graffiti application on Facebook allowed Samantha 0., nineteen, to create a computer graphic that she submitted as part of her college application and was accepted.

Jenkins is encouraged by these new skills. “Young people are learning how to play, perform, express themselves, and collaborate in large-scale communities. Yet, there is another skill often missing—judgment,” he said.

That’s where parents come in. Clara G. believes that the technology is here to stay and that she needs to be her children’s moral guide: “You have to embrace it, you have to be a part of it. You can’t bury your head in the sand and say no, this is not happening, because it is.” Helping your teen navigate the media wilderness is a parenting survival skill whose time has come. What Parents Can Do: Be Informed

What Parents Can Do: Be Informed
1. With your teen’s permission, check Instant Messaging Buddy Lists and review his/her personal profiles.
2. Be aware of Web sites that your teen visits regularly. Visit them yourself.
3. Use media blocks like the V chip and Internet parental controls to filter out inappropriate content.
4. Remove all electronic media from your teen’s bedroom.
5. Keep the computer, TV, and other media in a public space in your home.
6. Limit the total amount of time your teen spends using media tools each day.


What Parents Can Do #2: Make Sense of the Messages
1. Use controversial content as an opportunity to talk about your family’s values
2. Observe and discuss your teen’s media preferences so she is aware of why she is attracted to certain content.
3. Play devil’s advocate to help her assess media’s value and appropriateness.
4. Encourage your teen to be active. Be sure they participate in offline as well as online relationships.
5. Make a family moratorium on media for one week each year—set a good example yourself!


By Susan M. Novick

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