In an effort to help counteract the impact of all those electrons and all that sitting (and to remind people that there is actually life beyond the screen), organizations like the Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood are sponsoring Screen-Free Week, April 29-May 5. The campaign invites and encourages people of all ages to flip the power switches off for 7 days and take time to focus on other ways to have fun and to connect with others.
After decades as a television junkie, I don’t even have a TV anymore, and I don’t miss it a bit (I still watch a few TV shows on my laptop). But the sad truth is that almost everyone in the U.S. has at least one television and a mobile device or two (and perhaps a gaming console) stashed somewhere, and that the vast majority of folks glue their eyes to those screens on a regular basis. So, while campaigns such as Screen-Free Week are terrific for reminding us about life beyond American Idol, Grand Theft Auto whatever, and George Takei's Facebook wall, it’s essential that we provide people – especially young people – with the creative and critical thinking skills they need to make healthy and humane choices about the media they consume.
Here are some suggestions for engaging youth (students, if you’re a teacher; your kids if you’re a parent) in thinking critically about television and other media.
1. Have students discuss issues such as:
- Is watching TV a healthy activity, a harmful activity, or does it depend on the TV program? What are the benefits? The drawbacks?
- How much TV is appropriate for various age groups?
- How much impact does what you see on TV have on your values and behavior?
- How much impact do commercials have on your buying habits?
- What are the possible motivations for people/companies creating media?
- Should there be any controls/restrictions on media?
- What alternatives exist to mainstream media?
- How are problems solved in the media (such as problems prevailed over in 21 minutes for a 30 minute show, or bad guys “solved” by shooting them, etc.)?
- What does media tell us about our culture/world? What does it tell us about other cultures?
- How are men/women portrayed in media?
- How are people of other races, religions, sexual orientations, abilities, etc., portrayed?
- How does television (and/or other media) affect our relationship with other people? With animal species? With animals as individuals? With the planet?
3. Have students list the values/attitudes/behaviors that we admire, our parents value, our society values, etc. Then have them list the values promoted by TV shows, movies, video games, advertising, etc. Lead a discussion on the differences between the two.
4. Encourage students to explore the power of narrative in the transmission of cultural values. Have them look at/find stories, fables, guerrilla theater, ads, music videos, YouTube, songs, etc., and consider: How are we consciously & unconsciously affected by the stories within these media and how do they influence our behaviors, values, attitudes, etc.?
5. Have students watch age-appropriate shows of different types [decide how many and what types, such as a cartoon, a news program, a prime time show, a cable TV show (if students have access), etc.] and count the violent acts that they see during that show. You could repeat the exercise, each with different criteria, such as with “sexual” situations, racist and/or sexist comments, etc. All criteria (such as what constitutes a “violent act”) would need to be defined, so that everyone is clear. You could also have students include the commercials.
6. On July 26, 2000, numerous medial & psychological organizations (including the American Medical Association & the American Psychological Association) issued a joint statement that said “viewing entertainment violence can lead to increases in aggressive attitudes, values and behavior, particularly in children” (Consuming Kids, 117).
Explore with students: What is the relationship between media violence and children’s behavior? What are some other contributing factors?
Have them look at news stories and other resources about how some communities have responded to youth violence that appeared to be “influenced” by media. How did they respond? What/whom did they blame? What might have been a more effective response?
7. Explore: “Do commercials tell the truth?”
Find sample commercials promoting products that appeal to your students’ age group. (YouTube or the company’s website might be good sources.) Be sure to include a couple samples that especially “stretch the truth.”
Ask students to respond to the question: “Do commercials tell the truth?” and to share their thinking behind their answer. (You may wish to explore what “truth” is and what it means.)
Have students watch sample commercials and pay attention to the “truth” promoted in them.
Ask students to explore whether those sample commercials told the “truth” or not.
Ask students to consider what they know about “truth” in advertising and compare that to their own product preferences. Why do they have these preferences? (How have the commercials influenced them?)
You can also find free, downloadable activities about media, marketing and advertising on our website.
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