Media literacy - what a concept. Television is so pervasive in our culture that many experts believe what we need most is an education on how to watch.
When teaching children about television violence, moral values, and advertising enticements, it's important to include a lesson on what's real and what's not. Child advocacy groups and the National Cable Television Association (NCTA) help this effort with a short instructional video called "Taking Charge of Your TV," in which host Rosie O'Donnell describes the following four steps to help kids develop critical viewing habits:
1. "Television programs and their messages are created to achieve specific results."
Parents should help children understand that TV is a storyteller and that stories are made up. Every show has a purpose and a message - some are meant to be scary, or sad, or funny. Point out how technical elements of a story - lighting, camera angles, music, and so on - may be used to manipulate emotions. And even when a show seems real (as in so-called "real TV"), it has been edited and altered to make it more exciting.
2. "Each person interprets programs differently."
We don't all understand a given show the same way. What may be funny to one child could be insulting to another, or what is exciting to some is frightening to others. So parents are encouraged to discuss each show with their children, ask them questions about their feelings, and urge them to question attitudes and stereotypes. Expressing parental concerns and values is particularly important.
3. "Television violence takes many forms."
Cartoon and slapstick violence can be funny, while more realistic violence can be gripping. Explain to children that the pratfall isn't real, the cartoon characters don't really get hurt, and the actor who falls down wasn't really shot at all. Parents can help sensitize their kids by talking about the feelings of the victim - and pointing out that in real life, violence has consequences.
4. "TV programs have an underlying economic purpose."
Because most shows on TV are supported by advertisers, it's well to help children develop a healthy skepticism toward products they see on TV. Why do certain advertisers support certain shows? How do ads make breakfast cereal, say, or hamburgers look more delicious than they really are? Or toys look like more fun than they really are?
For some parents, this modest video may not go far enough. But it can be helpful, especially when used in conjunction with "Tools to Use to Help You Choose," a pamphlet that explains the complex TV-rating system developed by the cable industry with the PTA, the National Education Association, and other child-advocacy groups. Both are available through local cable services, and "Taking Charge" is also available free through the Family and Community Critical Viewing Project, 800-452-6351.
To underscore the importance of media literacy, the NCTA will host a nationally televised critical-viewing workshop (with parallel workshops held around the country) June 9 on the Learning Channel (11-11:30 a.m.).