Volume:6, Issue: 1

May. 1, 2014

Family Media Literacy: An Imperative for Today’s Children
DeGaetano, Gloria M. [about]

KEY WORDS: Media literacy, family media literacy, television and children, limiting screen technologies, rules for devices, research on children and screens.

ABSTRACT. Parents today face a technology tsunami that brings unprecedented parenting challenges. The relationship between a parent and a child requires special consideration in our digital age in order for parents to understand these challenges and help their children grow optimally despite them. This article examines six of these challenges and shows how parents can pro-actively address them through family media literacy. Media literacy is defined and what outcomes can be expected for children and teens when parents put an emphasis on media literacy in their daily routines.

In the mid 1980s I was a divorced, exhausted working mother with two little boys, ages two and four. Like any self-preserving single parent, I used television to keep them safe and silent and to keep myself sane—to a degree—because whenever they were away from the TV they were still uncontrollable. I resigned myself to parenting “active boys.”

Then something interesting happened. My ex wanted the television. To keep our tenuous peace, I said, “Okay,” when secretly I shook inside, “How will I survive even one day without a television?” I vowed to buy a new one as soon as I received my next paycheck.

In the meantime, I braced myself for making it to the end of the month with all of us in one piece. The first few days were hell. The boys were cranky and hyper, nagging, and complaining, yelling, and whining, fighting at every turn. After a busy day as a school district administrator, I would pick them up and come home to figure out: What to do with them? I decided to do what I thought would be fun. I loved playing pretend so I put on dress-up clothes making dinner as a pirate some nights, as Princess Leia other nights—they loved this—and joined in the fun, creating imaginary characters of their own. We listened to classical music and I told them stories about all the instruments. Books on tape became a magic savior to rescue me night after night, keeping them entertained and calm. After two weeks of this, a miracle happened. My “little hellions” transformed into curious, cooperative, creative boys—of course, they still had their moments—but what a difference! Frankly, I was shocked by all the positive changes.

Thus began my research about the over-use and misuse of screen technologies on the developing brain. With no Internet, my research meant going back and forth to the local university library, copying journal articles that stunned me with the understanding that the more time children spent with television, the more likely they were to have learning problems, be less motivated in school and be more likely to be aggressive and uncooperative (Macbeth Williams, 1986). I was amazed to also discover that the verdict on TV violence had been conclusive since 1976: violent images do contribute to aggressive behaviors, fear, and desensitization to real violence (Bouthilet and Lazar, 1982).

Back then, of course, the screen-machine temptations were nothing compared to what seduces parents today to keep kids out of way while getting dinner on the table after a busy workday or for parents who just want some time for themselves to think, away from the continual questions and chatter children often bring. Today we find: screens in SUVs that keep kids silent on the drive to school; hand-held video games to play anytime of the day, especially when “bored;” cell phones given to babies in car seats while Mom puts groceries in the trunk. In fact, between their first and second birthday, on any given day, 64% of babies and toddlers are watching TV and videos, averaging slightly over two hours (Rideout, 2011). Parents use DVDs to divert toddlers’ attention while eating out at restaurants—stifling their curiosity and communication skill development in the process. And our schools don’t make it easy for parents who seek to control screen time. Many districts now mandate i-Pads for kindergartners. Often these tablets come home with the children, increasing their time interfacing with 2-dimensional reality at the expense of living in, and enjoying, 3-dimensional reality. And many moms and dads find themselves caught in today’s technology tsunami as well, with frequent texting, downloading, sharing and interacting on social media, sometimes modeling obsessive screen behaviors to their children without realizing what they are doing. The need to keep up with their peers pulls strongly. It’s a digital world after all.

Six Unprecedented Parenting Challenges

Why do so many parents think screens are okay to use as often as they want with children? Even though brain science has exploded with relevant information, parents do not always connect that information in relation to appropriate screen technology use according to age and stage of development. Instead of making things easier, this “age of information” gives parents six major challenges not faced by previous generations.

1.  Global conglomerates influence children at an early age, setting the stage for them to think they need certain products and digital devices as they grow.

Over the years multi-national companies have increased their hold on our kids. Judith Rubin, in the magazine Mothering, reminds us that “marketing professionals cross-reference, cross market and cross-pollinate products and entertainment. By intentionally blurring the distinctions between products, entertainment, school curricula and advertisements, marketers readily capitalize on young children's limited ability to differentiate between them” (Rubin, 2003).

2.  Community standards are being eroded through the co-opting of social institutions.

Parents can no longer rely on the social structure to reiterate their values to their kids. In fact, one of the biggest challenges parents face is that too many societal influences are corporate clones. Many U. S. public schools, for instance, beam Channel One into the classrooms. In doing so, these schools implicitly add their authority to the commercial ads for junk food and violent video games the kids see each day. Radio Disney plays incessantly on many school buses; fast food companies sponsor school activities and major events—like the winter Olympics—while fewer see the contradictions and ironies.

3.  Corporations undermine parental authority and responsibility.

Corporations intentionally drive a wedge between the parent and child. Parents who say, “No,” and strive to set boundaries are often seen as stupid and unfair. Today, the child’s peer group may as well have an umbilical cord tied directly to global conglomerates, making them significant authorities in children’s lives. Parents have to develop warrior spirits to enable themselves to deal effectively with children’s whining and nagging prompted by mass media’s constant barrage. They have to work hard each and every day to become the primary authority for their own children. Kay Hymowitz, an affiliate scholar with the Institute for American Values, reminds us that “parents need to do something they’ve never been required to do before perhaps at any time in history: deliberately and consciously counter many of the dominant messages of their own culture” (2003).

4.  Lack of relevant information and a pattern of disinformation keep parents in a state of confusion.

Corporations spend millions each day to guide our attention in specific directions—often leaving out critical information important to parents. For example, most parents I meet are unaware that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends one hour or less a day of all screen time (including TV, video games, videos and computers, smart phones, i-Pads, etc.) for children ages 3- 6 and no screen time for babies and toddlers, birth to age 2 (2011).

In fact, some experts think the AAP's recommendation is not strong enough. Researchers Dr. Robert Hill and Dr. Eduardo Castro, writing in their book, Getting Rid of Ritalin: How Neurofeedback Can Successfully Treat Attention Deficit Disorder without Drugs, recommend no television before the age of five. They emphasize, “We can say with confidence that excessive television, particularly in young children, causes neurological damage. TV watching causes the brain to slow down, producing a constant pattern of low-frequency brainwaves consistent with ADD behavior.” Sounds radical. Yet, their points are important because young brains are fragile and vulnerable—vitally important information that many young parents these days just do not know. And the evidence keeps mounting. A 2004 study by Dimitri A. Christakis at the University of Washington and Children’s Hospital clearly demonstrated that young children face a 10 per cent increase in the risk of having attention problems at the age of seven for every hour of daily television that they watch. Elementary age children who watch four or more hours a day of TV expend less effort on school work, have poorer reading skills, play less well with friends, and have fewer hobbies and activities than light viewers. Children who are heavy screen users read little, have more attention problems, poorer language abilities, and have emotional and social difficulties (1992). Although the research has been clear on these outcomes for decades, this is news to most parents.

5.  A screen-machine culture turns mass attention to sensational and mindless content, while downplaying and often deriding analysis and other higher-level thought processes.

A mechanism inside the lower part of the human brain actually causes us to look at the distorted or the weird. That means it is easier to pay attention to gratuitous violence, titillating sexuality and fast-paced action than it is to PBS, the History Channel, or the teacher in the classroom. When sensational forms of images predominate, selective attention processes—the brain's ability to filter out extraneous information and determine what is really important—can’t develop normally. And parents can’t easily get their kids to focus on the important things if their young minds are conditioned to respond to the trivial.

6. A culture fixated on screens pushes a “machine-like” view of the world, treats people as objects and promotes a “quick fix” as the only way.

Sitcom characters solve dilemmas in less than 30 minutes. Commercials imply an end to malaise by purchasing a new car or the demise of depression with a new color of lipstick. Drug companies visually portray people having more joy in life with the intake of a pill. Constant images of quick fixes can influence our thinking about what works best for kids. For example, variances in growth are common in all living things. The surrounding culture, though, pushes parents to worry and seek quick answers if their children don’t learn to read, write or count at the “right” time. Digital devices have exacerbated the problem, with instant feedback on app games, immediate rewards on video games, and on the spot connections through social media. Teaching children to live, and appreciate living in, slow-moving reality with all its struggles, processes, uncertainties, and frustrations is becoming increasing challenging. In many ways real life just can’t compete with the pleasurable immediacy screen technology brings.

Family Media Literacy Addresses the Challenges Productively

Unprecedented challenges call for new ways for families to live with and be with technology. Consciousness, strong intention, and careful attention must take precedent over mindless use and half-hearted rules. With a focus on family media literacy, parents can pro-actively address the challenges while supporting their children to become wise media consumers and enlightened digital citizens.

What is media literacy? The word literacy connotes a high degree of competency and usually means that a person knows how to read and write. A literate person, on the other hand, is well read, using and applying high level thinking skills across a broad range of topics. Computer literacy means the capacity to use computers well. Media literacy, then, is the ability to use all forms of media-delivery systems well, such as television, video games, and smart phones. A media-literate person uses television, movies, DVDs, computer and video games for specific purposes, just as a print-literate person reads a book or a magazine, a college text or a newspaper for specific, various reasons.

Using all visual screen technology intentionally is the first, and most important element in becoming media literate. Ultimately as parents we want children and teens to be in control of small screens and not be controlled by them. Research has verified and experts know that a child who mindlessly watches a lot of TV or plays video games endlessly is less equipped to develop the capacities for wise media use. A media literate child, on the other hand, would learn to self-monitor screen time—being able to take it in doses—rather than make a habit of it four-five hours a day. He or she would want to do other activities because thinking, creative children are curious beings and there’s a whole world out there to explore—screen technologies just being one small part of it.

In addition to being able to control media use, media-literate children and teens know the differences between various presentation forms of media. Just as a print-literate person can tell a fairy tale from a biography, a media-literate person knows how different techniques are used to convey messages. Sitcoms are not documentaries, for instance, and while music videos may look like some commercials with their quick cuts, commercials and music videos have specific audiences, every image carefully constructed to “hook” an intended audience.

Careful discernment and critical understanding of the content of TV shows, movies, and video games compose the third important component of media literacy. While a print-literate person reads and makes sense out of words, a media literate person reads and seeks to understand images. Using analysis, evaluation, and higher level thinking skills, a media-literate person interprets the subtle messages and overt claims visual messages convey. This is where we want our children headed—in a direction of making it second nature to think carefully about all the media images they see everyday—from ads to apps and everything in between.

If we boiled down media literacy for our children and teens, I think we would find six basic skills that we would like them to acquire:

Conscious, intentional, limited use of all forms of screen technology.

  • Ability to critique visual messages and understand their intent and intellectual and emotional impact.
  • Ability to communicate facts, ideas, and thoughtful opinions about media images.
  • A thorough understanding of media production techniques to fully appreciate how such techniques as camera angles, lighting, cuts, etc. impact the messages being delivered.
  • Ability to use all forms of screen technology purposefully, and eventually wisely.
  • A meta-level of understanding that the devices, gadgets, the large and small screens, can enhance healthy communication and our personhood when used wisely or they can limit what it means to be human and fuel dependency, even addiction.

Research shows media education in schools to be effective in mitigating the negative effects of media violence and misleading advertising on children’s and teens’ attitudes and behaviors (Bickham and Slaby, 2012). Therefore, media education at home can be equally effective. Over the years of working with parents I have found four basic components to be helpful guidelines:

1.  Establish a few rules and strive for consistency.

2.  Set up the home to be a media-literate environment—no TV in children’s bedrooms; carefully place home computers so youngsters can be monitored; think about: “How do I want my home to feel?” “What brings our home environment vitality?”

3.  Ask thoughtful questions so kids become critical thinkers about what they see on screens.

4. Model your own creativity; use screen technologies as tools for healthy entertainment and meaningful learning experiences.

It is important to remember that no rule or media literacy activity will be effective if moms and dads do not first convey their values and priorities—often—and strive each day to engage their kids in conversations about screen technologies. The devices just about devour us; they are so much a part of our daily routines. It is imperative then that talking with our kids, sharing our concerns and our ideas, and asking them to share theirs, becomes a part of everyday day digital life in order to guide children through the media minefields.

Parents don’t have to throw up their hands in despair or wring them with worry about how to deal effectively with screen technologies. Attending to the quality of the parent-child relationship, moms and dads step into their authentic power—the first and most important step to successful family media literacy practices. As writer Margaret Wheatly puts it, “If power is the capacity generated by our relationships, then we need to be attending to the quality of those relationships. We would do well to ponder the realization that love is the most potent source of power” (1999).


  1. American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications, “Media use by children younger than 2 years,” Pediatrics, 128(5), 2011, pp. 1040-1045.
  2. Bickham, David and Ronald Slaby. “Effects of a media literacy program in the US on children’s critical evaluation of unhealthy media messages about violence, smoking, and food,” Journal of Children and Media, Vol. 6, Issue 2, 2012, pp.255-271.
  3. Christakis, Dimitri A., MD, MPH; Frederick J. Zimmerman, PhD; David L. DiGiuseppe, MSc; and Carolyn A. McCarty, PhD, “Early television exposure and subsequent attentional problems in children,” Pediatrics, Vol. 113 No. 4 April 2004.
  4. Hill, Robert and Eduardo Castro. Getting Rid of Ritalin: How Neurofeedback Can Successfully Treat Attention Deficit Disorder without Drugs, Hampton Roads Publishing Company, 2002, p.151.
  5. Huston, A. C., Donnerstein, E., Fairchild, H., Feshbach, N. D., Katz, P. A., Murray, J. P., Rubinstein, E. A., Wilcox, B. L., and Zuckerman, D. Big World, Small Screen: The Role of Television in American Society. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.
  6. Hymowitz, Kay. “The Contradictions of Parenting in a Media Age,” in Kid Stuff: Marketing Sex and Violence to America’s Children, edited by Diane Ravitch and Joseph P. Viteritti, The John Hopkins University Press, 2003, p. 228.
  7. McBeth Williams, Tannis. The Impact of Television: A Natural Experiment in Three Communities, New York: Academic Press, 1986.
  8. National Institute of Mental Health Report: Pearl D. Bouthilet, L. Lazar, J. Eds. National Institute of Mental Health, Television and Behavior: Ten Years of Scientific Progress and Implications for the Eighties, vol. 1, Summary Report. Washington D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1982.
  9. Rideout, Vicky. Zero to Eight: Children’s Media Use in America, San Francisco, CA: Commonsense Media, 2011, p. 44.
  10. Rubin, Judith. “No more junk toys: rethinking children’s gifts,” Mothering, November-December, 2003, pp.47-48.
  11. Wheatley, Margaret J. Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1999, p. 40.

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