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Raising Media-Savvy Kids

Mom Congress and National PTA have teamed up to create a three-part series devoted to education topics that often get short shrift. This month we're tackling a defining issue of the new generation -- media -- so you can teach your children what it all really means.

If parents, teachers, and the media were in a race for influence over our children, the media would have dramatically pulled ahead in 2010. This year a major national study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that the average 8- to 18-year-old in the United States spends nearly eight hours a day using entertainment media-that's as much (and sometimes more) time as they spend in school or with their families.

Regardless of whether this figure accurately reflects what is going on in your home, the sheer magnitude of the findings makes it glaringly clear that most kids are more plugged in than ever-which means they're being bombarded with cultural messages that you may not always agree with. "Media plays a huge role in the way kids understand everything from sex and gender to drugs and alcohol," says Anne Zehren, a mother of two young boys and board member and former president of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit dedicated to offering parents practical solutions for family media issues. "They need to hear your voice alongside all the other noise out there."

In fact, the number one piece of advice from media-literacy educators and experts is the same: As much as possible, parents need to be with their kids when they are watching, reading, listening, surfing, or gaming. Most kids aren't naturally attuned to subtle (or even blatant) marketing messages and bias in media. But here's the upside: Once they do begin to understand when they're being manipulated, it's a game changer. Kids don't simply become more aware -- they become empowered: They're more deliberate about what they view and listen to, and more proactive about responding negatively to deceptive and hidden messages. So investing the time in helping your children become smart consumers of media isn't just good for them; it's good for everyone. How to start the process:

Sharing it As much as possible, parents need to be with their kids when they're watching, reading, listening, surfing, or gaming. Most children aren't naturally attuned to subtle (or even blatant) marketing messages and bias.

Use media as a conversation starter -not a lecture trigger. You don't need us to tell you that even the youngest kids glaze over when you launch into a discussion about What They Need to Know. Instead, exert your influence by asking simple, guided questions when you're watching or listening together. For instance, take this example from Common Sense Media, which recently reviewed Selena Gomez's new single, "Round and Round," on its website; the group gave the song an "iffy" rating for kids 10 and up-not because it contains explicit content, but because it focuses on a girl who won't leave a bad relationship.

Instead of simply banning the song (good luck with that anyway!), Common Sense Media suggests using it as an opportunity to talk about what it means to be in a healthy, loving relationship. Ask your child to think of five reasons someone might continue to date a person who makes him unhappy. What are some things you could do to break free if that happened to you? The conversation that results will give you an organic way to impart your family's values.

And if your kid is too young to fully understand a concept-like, say, why the super-fun commercial for a super-sugary cereal really isn't selling fun-it may just be okay to rely on your authority as the parent. "My five-year-old was trying to get me to buy some food she thought was healthy but wasn't. She actually quoted the commercial," explains Katie Pigott, a mom of two in Spring Lake, MI. "So we had a chat about how everything we see and hear is not necessarily true. I basically told her to only trust her mommy!"

Watching it Only 3 in 10 children have rules about media use. Drafting a Family Media Agreement can cut nagging -- and consumption. Find one at Commonsensemedia.org.

Play some games. Let's face it, some concepts that you'll have to explore are big-and explaining gender bias and objectification isn't necessarily easy. We've got two exercises that can help:

1. Flip through a magazine or other publication and find an advertisement featuring a woman or part of a woman. Cover up the headline or brand with your hand, and ask your child to guess what the ad is selling. If she hasn't seen the ad before, she might just find this impossible. Once you reveal the brand, discuss how the ad "sells" this product and what it really means. You might ask: How are women used to attract the reader's attention? Does the ad seem to imply that you'll look like the model (or get to date someone like her) if you buy the product? Does that have anything at all to do with the product's quality?

Get more from Mom Congress! Give voice to your top education concerns by becoming a member of Parenting's Mom Congress, now more than 20,000 strong. Log on to Parenting.com/momcongress to sign up, get the latest news on our blog, and chat with other moms who are passionate about the same issues you are.

Discussions like these help mitigate the damaging messages peddled to young women. And they are damaging: Multiple studies have found that the more unanalyzed exposure female tweens and teens have to these kinds of images, the more likely they are to suffer depression, body-image disorders, self-esteem issues, and problems concentrating. The effects on boys are just as worrisome: The messages can reinforce the idea that women should be judged on their looks, not by who they are. And that can influence their ability to form healthy relationships with women later on-they've been conditioned to expect perfection. (For more info, visit PTA.org/3736.htm.)

2. While you're watching TV, start a simple count of men and women onscreen. When the actress Geena Davis did this with her own daughter five years ago, she was shocked. She saw for herself what numerous studies have discovered: For every woman on the screen, there are almost three men. In other words, it's as if women literally don't count. Davis was so dismayed that she founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which aims to raise a new generation of kids who see boys and girls as true equals. But her exercise is an excellent way to open your child's eyes to all the forms of bias that are so pervasive in our culture. Keep a family notebook to count African-Americans, Latinos, women playing sports, actors smoking, drinking, or swearing, or product placements. The goal is to keep the conversation going. It may be two minutes one day, but a half hour next time. And with any luck, by the time your child has kids of his own, these issues will be really old news.

Log on! Visit PTA.org for even more media advice. Just click on "parental involvement" for downloadable fact sheets.

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