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Media and Children

May 20, 2011

Yesterday I attended the annual Challenge of Children Conference in Holland where 1200 people gathered to discuss issues pertaining to the well being of children. I conducted a workshop for parents, teachers and school social workers on how media impacts children and how the media industry targets them.

I began the workshop by talking about the evolving media technology and how much time kids spend consuming this media. According to a 2010 report from the Kaiser Family Foundation, Media on the Lives of 8 – to 18–year-olds, there has been a dramatic increase in media consumption from 1999 to 2009.

Total media exposure in the last tens years for kids 8 – 18 went from 7 ½ hours to 10 hours and 45 minutes. This shift is due mostly to the current generation of handheld digital devices or mobile units. The report also stated that kids spend more time using multiple media sources at the same time, like playing video games, while listening to music and texting friends.

When we talk about media consumption in the Media Literacy world we always emphasize what the cumulative effect is with the exposure to media images and messages. For instance, the Kaiser report stated that kids are spending on average 4.5 hours a day in front of a TV screen, which over ones lifetime would equal about 16 years of their life spent watching TV. Exposure to say violent media images over that period of time can have a cumulative effect such as desensitization to violence or what researchers call the normalization of violence.

I then did an exercise with those in the workshop to get people to think about what we know and what we don’t know based on what kind of media we are exposed to. I showed them the Branded Alphabet where people have to identify what products each letter represents and then we look at current members of the Obama cabinet and people have to say their name and what position they hold in the government. Overwhelmingly people can identify the products, but not the government officials. This exercise provides a good opportunity to talk about the fact that we know advertising more in part because we live in a for-profit media system where being consumers dominates over being citizens.

The next aspect of the workshop is to get participants to think about how all media is constructed. What we mean by that is someone puts together media, all media. There is not a wide-angle lens on the world where information comes to us unfiltered. Our media system determines what to give us and when to give it to us. Here we look at a Dove Foundation created PSA to make a point about how both media is constructed as well as beauty.

Once people have a better sense of how media is constructed we then spend some time looking at how to deconstruct media images and messages. We look at numerous examples and talk about everything from the product being sold to the primary target audience, the edits, camera angles, lighting, props, location, colors used, music used, the pace of the ad and the feel of the ad. Those who make these commercials certainly think about it since these ads are highly constructed. One example we looked at was a Chrysler Mini Van ad that is targeting kids. The ad shows kids in a playground who are in awe of the vehicle as it drives by and at one point the narrator of the commercial even says the mini van is “like a playground on wheels.”

After looking at numerous media examples we also mention that advertisers are constantly pushing for new venues in which to target kids. Corporations now pay to insert branded products into video games, use a variety of techniques to advertise in schools and to target kids with product placement in movies. The website Brand Channel provides a chronological breakdown of recently released films and lists the products used within each film. For example, the recently released film Hop features the following branded products: Apple, Baby Carrots, Butterball, Cadbury, Eagle Creek, Gibson, Hershey’s Mrs. Meyers, Playboy, Ray-ban, Sabian, Stax, The Orpheum, Toyota Prius, UPS and Volvo.

Another venue for targeting children is the cross-promotion of products and brands. For instance, with the film Thor, Burger King partnered with the film distribution company to cross-promote the film and Burger King Products. This cross promotion could be seen in commercials but also online at BK’s kid specific website Club BK. The website features games, toys and other messages that encourages kids to consume Burger King products and to normalize fast food.

Once we looked at all the ways in which children are being targeted by media and advertising we ended the workshop by looking at ways in which we can respond to the negative effects of media on children. GRIID has online a 5 Key Strategies for Media Education and Accountability handout which provides people with concrete actions to take in the home, in schools, with media companies and the larger community.

It is not only important that we give kids the skills to become media literate, we also have to confront media companies and challenge them on their practices of targeting children.

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