Helping Your Tween be a Critical Media Consumer
Source: Jennifer W. Shewmaker, Ph.D.
Tweens are at a great age to begin learning how to become critical consumers. They have the ability to think about things from someone else's perspective and they're growing in their desire to become more independent thinkers. Both of these are important skills in learning to think critically.
To be a critical consumer, tweens need to understand that advertisements and marketing are about selling them something. Even their favorite TV shows and computer games are filled with persuasive messages to either keep them interested in that particular form of entertainment or to get them interested in something else that the same company is promoting. Any form of media is also promoting the worldview of the creator. This doesn't make marketers and media producers evil, but it does mean that whenever we're engaging with their content, we have to understand that they are trying to persuade us to adopt their point of view and value system.
A good way to help your tween understand this is to talk about specific examples in their own life when they have tried to get you, a sibling, or a friend to do something. Ask them questions like how they went about convincing that person, what arguments they used, did they appeal to their emotions? Once you've been able to identify a few specific strategies that they've used to try to get someone to do something, then you can start drawing parallels with how marketers work. Marketers want us to buy their product or watch their show. How do they go about convincing us that we should? They try to appeal to our desires to be cool, to look good, to have friends or do fun things. Ready to try it?
Watch this cereal commercial together and ask the following questions:
1. What words do we hear? What are the people in the ads, the songs, and the words on the screen saying? Jot down the words and put a check by them if you hear them more than one time.
2. What are we seeing? What visual images are being used to sell the product? What activities are the people/cartoons/animals on screen doing?
3. What is the theme of the advertisements for this product? What is the overall message that a child would walk away with? Come up with one sentence that starts with "If I buy _____________, then I will ______________"
This activity gives you and your tween the chance to critically deconstruct an advertisement. Instead of just mindlessly watching, they now have the skills to critique. And, once you've done this a few times with your tween, they'll begin to think of media and marketing from a new perspective. They will be empowered to really think about the meaning behind messages sent by advertisers. This is the heart of being a critical consumer!
It's also important to help your child to learn to deconstruct and critique the media that they consumer, from TV shows to movies to songs. Like commercials, media is created from a certain worldview, not in a vacuum. The person who created our child's favorite TV show may have a vastly different worldview than you and your family. It's fine to explore those worldviews, as long as both you and your child understand that this is what you're doing. For example, the gender stereotypes that are presented in entertainment targeting your tween may promote very different ideas about what it means to be a boy or girl than you do in your own home. It's important for your tween to be able to notice that, think about it critically, and then make a decision about what they themselves believe.
In an activity similar to the one that we discussed above, you can watch a TV show or movie with your child and practice being critical consumers together.
1. First, ask yourself a few questions about the target audience: Who does this message come from? Who is the target audience according to the developer? It's important to really understand whom the target audience is in order to determine if the product/program is appropriate for you or your child.
2. What message is being sent through words, music, images and stories? What about the unspoken messages? Are there impressions that you get very clearly whether they are or are not spoken? In many TV shows aimed at tweens there is an unspoken message that parents are stupid or sometimes basically absent. How are different types of people depicted? Are there messages about how to get what you want? How to be in relationship with others? How to deal with friendship problems?
3. What values are presented? What positive and negative messages come through? How do these compare to your own value system?
Another fun activity that can really open both your and your child's eyes to the messages being sent through different media and marketing campaigns is making word clouds. You and your child can use Wordle to create word clouds from groups of words that you gather from different advertisements, TV shows, music, etc. Here are some specific ways that you might use word clouds with your tween:
1. Work with your tween to develop a word cloud of the characteristics that they think are most valuable in a girl or boy and compare it to those they see presented in media portrayals. For example, after you help them make theirs, you might look through magazines together, watch advertisements, or TV shows and collect words and themes that you both agree are being used to promote value in a person.
2. Watch a TV show or movie that you and your tween are considering and record the words or themes that you notice. Use Wordle to develop a picture of the overwhelming themes within that show. This will help you decide if the overall worldview presented by the program is one that you want to support
3. Record the words used in music that you and/or your tween consider sexualizing or negative to make a word cloud and compare it to one for music that you both find positive. The visual of the word cloud really allows you to compare and contrast the different messages being sent.
If you're comfortable with it, it's okay for your tween to engage with media that promotes a different value system than your own. What's important is that both of you are able to think and talk about it together. This is a good way to jumpstart a conversation about why your family has certain values in the first place.
These activities will give you a good opportunity to start practicing being a critical consumer of media and marketing with your child. This will lead both of you to feel more empowered to choose your response to media and marketing.
Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker is a nationally certified school psychologist and licensed specialist who has worked with hundreds of families, children, and teachers since she received her doctorate from Texas Woman's University in 1996. She is the current director of the School Psychology specialist program and an Associate Professor of Psychology at Abilene Christian University. Along with writing and presenting research at professional conferences, Dr. Shewmaker provides media literacy and consumer activist workshops that help parents, teachers, and children learn to more closely examine media messages and plan a thoughtful, effective response. She is the author of the blog Don't Conform Transform.
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