As digital content creators, sometimes we come face to face with Pogo the Possum’s famous observation, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” In a cultural landscape drowning in endless advertisements, hypnotic entertainment, and overwhelming information, are we making the world better or worse?
As a parent, I felt forced to ask myself, “How can I use what I know to help my children defend themselves against manipulative media?”
About a year ago, I started researching this topic. Today, I am very proud to introduce my new eBook, “Media-Proof Kids: A Guide For Parents.”
This is not a how-to manual on setting internet parental controls; it is a serious exploration of neuroscience, branding, and the ways in which “screen time” affect us and our children.
If you’re a parent, I hope you’ll check out the book. To give you more of an idea of what it contains, here is the first chapter.
Chapter 1. The Nature of Media
The World Of Jim Profit
In 1996, a show called Profit aired briefly on the Fox network. Not to be confused with CNBC’s similarly named The Profit reality show, 1996’s Profit starred Adrian Pasdar as Jim Profit, a psychopath who used blackmail, murder, and even incest to climb the corporate ladder. The program explained Profit’s utter selfishness and complete immorality by revealing that he had spent his childhood imprisoned in a cardboard box, watching a television that was never turned off. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the show did not sit well with viewers, and was cancelled after five episodes.
Interestingly, nobody seemed to question the premise that a continuous diet of television might turn a normal child into a monster.
Fast-forward to today. Even without being confined to a cardboard box, the average American 8- to 18-year-old spends 7.5 hours per day consuming media, and, thanks to multitasking, packs 10.75 hours of content into that time. This is in comparison to the 1-2 hour per day maximum that the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests. If you’re wondering how all those hours fit into a 24-hour day, consider this: a 2012 Boston College study found that over 70% of American 9-14 year old children are sleep deprived to the extent that it negatively impacts their academic performance.
Through screens large and small, electronic media intrudes into every aspect of our children’s lives. From the moment they wake up until the moment they fall asleep, many tweens and teens compulsively check their phones, tablets and computers, sifting hungrily through an endless stream of electronic stimulation. If they have a spare moment during the day, they play video games, participate in social media, and browse the internet. In the evening, they unwind with their favorite TV shows, movies and websites. Like the fictional Jim Profit, they are completely unaware of the impact this addictive sequence of images and actions has on their thoughts, desires, and perceptions of reality.
In contrast to the malign neglect inflicted by Jim Profit’s abusive father, many of today’s parents worry about the extent to which their children are “plugged in.” Often, they try to limit the amount or types of content that their kids can access. Rarely, however, do they sit down with their children to discuss the nature and function of media, or what the effects are of prolonged exposure. In many cases, this is not because parents are unmotivated, but simply because they do not work in the media or advertising industries, and therefore don’t know what to say.
This guide is intended to address that problem. In the following pages, you will find a step-by-step explanation of how the entertainment, advertising, and news industries manufacture their products; the effects – intended and unintended – that those products have on the brains of consumers; suggestions on how to discuss these concepts with your 8- to 18-year-old children; and some general guidelines for healthier media consumption.
A Two-Pronged Approach
Most parents are aware of the importance of limiting “screen time.” Indeed, this is half the equation for safeguarding children against media. Understanding the nature of the products they are consuming is the other half. We no longer live in an era when Johnny and Susie can simply be told to shut off the TV and go outside. Today, “outside” is just as permeated with media as “inside,” and Johnny and Susie probably have web-capable smartphones tucked into their pockets. In this intensely polluted atmosphere, even the most vigilant parents will inevitably find their children consuming much more media than they would like. This makes media literacy a critical issue for every family.
Put simply, the nature of media is to capture attention. Its function is to make money. In addition to its pernicious neurological effects, prolonged exposure teaches children to view reality through the lens of commercial media: to measure themselves and their family, friends, possessions and experiences against the images on their screens. They aren’t just learning to desire products, they’re learning to be products: to think, speak, dress and act like the characters and celebrities they see on their screens and hear on their earbuds. On social media websites, they even advertise themselves like products, clamoring for attention and validation in an endless, virtual popularity contest.
As Marshall McLuhan so accurately observed, the technology we use to communicate has a tremendous influence on the way we thinkiv. Children are coming of age in an environment where, if they wish to express themselves, their thoughts have to be simple enough to fit into a text message, a tweet, or a status update. Just as the bodies of office workers adapt over time to better fit the chairs they sit in, the minds of our children become molded to the dimensions and depth of the electronic boxes they inhabit.
In addition to the unwanted effects of consuming media in general, certain types of media have profound – and largely unacknowledged – psychological effects on consumers. Advertisements condition viewers to love products in the same way that Pavlov’s dogs learned to salivate at the sound of a bell. Entertainment hooks its audience on the pleasure hormones stimulated by its powerful torrent of sights and sounds. Like lab animals trained to push a feeder bar, users check their email and social media accounts compulsively, not because they consciously want to, but because they have been programmed to do so.
These are the fundamental issues of media overexposure. A slew of other problems flow from them: increased obesity and reduced IQ from watching TV; self-esteem issues from comparing their bodies to those of models and celebrities; loss of innocence from viewing explicit material on the internet; impaired attention spans and desensitization to violence from playing video games; and, of course, the loss of countless hours that might otherwise have been used in more fulfilling and meaningful ways. All these harmful effects stem from either too much media, bad media, or a lack of understanding of media.
Often, parents are lulled into a false sense of security by assurances that media directed at children has a “positive message.” Unfortunately, that’s usually nonsense. Children will naturally copy whatever they see: if a program shows 20 minutes of bullying and disrespectful behavior, followed by 2 minutes of moralizing, they are going to remember and imitate the negative behavior, not the supposed “message.” Meanwhile, schools and governments invest enormous amounts of money in technology, even though there is no evidence to suggest that screen-based lessons do anything more than diminish attention spans and make it more difficult for students to pay attention to real people.
It is possible to provide a better experience for your children, but it isn’t easy. In our culture, media consumption has become the omnipresent path of least resistance. Don’t want to deal with something? Take out your phone and start poking at it. Need to clean the house? Put the kids in front of the TV. Bored at work? Point your browser to the news, your social media feed, or one of the millions of other sites. These actions are so easy, so tempting, that it is very difficult for adults to restrain themselves. For children, who simply have not yet developed the necessary self-discipline, it is almost impossible to avoid the media consumption honey-trap. Therefore, to “media-proof” your kids, you’ll need a two-pronged approach:
1) Avoid – Regulate the quantity and quality of media (“screen time”) they consume
2) Understand – Teach them to recognize the manipulative techniques used by media.
Many books and articles have been written on the nuts-and-bolts of online privacy, device management, age-appropriate content selection, etc. The purpose of this book is not to re-tread the same ground, but to pick up where most discussions of media literacy tend to leave off. Here, like Toto in the Wizard of Oz, we’ll pull back the curtain of media, lay bare its methods, and, by exposing the humbug behind the scenes, empower our children to penetrate its hypnotic illusion.
Concept, Execution and Effect
In 1950, Gilbert Seldes boldly asserted that, “our mass entertainments are, practically speaking, the great creative arts of our time.”xi Indeed, the skills necessary to manufacture media products are, for the most part, artistic ones that require great expertise. Consider TV commercials: they are carefully written, skillfully performed, beautifully filmed, and often elicit an emotional response in the viewer. Who hasn’t gotten misty-eyed watching the Budweiser Clydesdales? Yet, no sane person would want their children consuming a continuous diet of commercials. The rest of the media landscape is no different: just because a product is beautiful doesn’t mean that it is wholesome.
Nevertheless, Seldes’ observation is helpful, because it points the way towards a method of thinking about media content. Just like a painting, book or poem, the artifacts of contemporary media – TV shows, movies, video games, even social media posts – can be evaluated and understood according to their concept, execution, and effect. These are the three fundamental aspects of any piece of artwork or media.
1) Concept – What are the main ideas and feelings in this?
2) Execution – How are the concepts presented? Through words? Images? Sounds? Is the work made with skill and effort, or crudely and carelessly?
3) Effect – How does this make you feel? What did it make you want to do?
From around eight years old, children are very capable of answering these questions. In fact, their insights may surprise you. Here are examples of answers given by children.
Power Rangers – “This show is about standing up for each other, and working as a team. It’s written very carefully. It does make me want to watch more TV.”
Barbie’s Dream House – “This show is about a girl who has everything. Her boyfriend spoils her and buys her anything she wants. It doesn’t look like they worked hard to make the show. It’s stupid.”
Ninjago – “This show is about doing the right thing, and achieving your full potential. They definitely spent a lot of time making it. It reminds me that, even when I disagree with my friends, I can count on them.”
Candy Swipe – “This game is about seeing patterns. It’s very well made. It makes me want to keep playing it.”
Discussing media in this way teaches children to look beneath the surface of what they’re seeing/hearing/playing. Simply by asking, “What do you think this song is telling you?” or “How did you feel after playing that video game?” you will be guiding your child towards an understanding of the ways in which media functions. By thinking critically about content, rather than passively absorbing it, children take the first step toward becoming more discriminating consumers.
1) Media-proof kids start with media-proof parents. Take an honest look at the way you interact with media products and technology. Make an effort to become consciously aware of every time you glance at your phone, computer or other device.
2) Start having “Concept, Execution, Effect” conversations with your children about the media products they consume. Work with your child to identify the “big ideas,” and to articulating how the products make them feel. Try to help them recognize the major themes – positive and negative – and ask them how they feel about those ideas.
3) Take a critical look at the concepts and emotions presented in the media your children consume. Do the stories revolve around overcoming challenges, valuing people for who they are, and working together, or are they about gossip, dating, and attracting attention? Are the characters respectful and helpful to each other, or are they bratty and snarky?
Media-Proof Kids: A Guide For Parents on Amazon.