Despite popular beliefs, the first step towards changing how children are affected by media exposure is not to take away their smartphone. It’s not changing the channel. And it’s not installing monitoring software. Instead, new research shows that if we want to change how media affects our kids, we need to start by raising the level of media literacy among parents.
If you’ve ever read my blog, you know by now that research shows that parent-child media-related interactions (such as conversations) are the best way to alter how media exposure affects kids. The problem with this, however, is that research also shows that many parents are not having these types of interactions regularly. So, if parents know that they should be talking to our kids about media, why aren’t we actually doing it?
In our just-released study (published in Journal of Media Literacy Education), we surveyed 177 parents from all across the U.S., and we found that the parents who do talk to their kids and who set critical rules about media are parents who are the most media literate. In other words, media literate parents tend to talk about media with their kids, while less media literate parents don’t.
The study also found that parents with higher levels of media literacy have more positive attitudes toward talking to their kids and toward setting rules about media. That shouldn’t be surprising. When parents know something about media and can look at it with a critical eye, of course they want to share what they know with their kids. My concern is not with parents like you who are reading this blog—you’re already on the right track. I’m most concerned about parents who know they should be talking with their kids about media, but because they don’t know enough about the media, they don’t even know what to say to their children!
I don’t have statistics on how many parents are “media literate.” Quantifying media literacy is a tough thing to do, and I’m not sure we ever arrive at the state of being media literate. But the fact that so few parents actually have regular conversations with their kids about media, and that so few parents set even rudimentary rules about children’s media use, tells me that American parents are largely media illiterate.
We may be able to read and write. We might be able to pay our bills online and how to find the latest gossip on our favorite celebrities. We might know how to play Minecraft like a cool parent. But this does not mean that we are media literate. I think media literacy starts with knowing enough about what content the media contains and how it affects kids that we begin to look at media with a critical eye. We begin to question the motivations behind the content we watch. We question the credibility of information. We know when to change the channel because we know what the potential effects of certain content is. We know when we see good, positive media content. And we have a desire to help our kids to also become critical media consumers.
Do we have a media illiteracy problem in this country? Probably. Are our kids affected by media? Probably. Could raising the collective level of media literacy among parents help change this? You bet. You know that my mission is to get research about children and media into the hands of parents. And now you know why. I want to raise the level of media literacy among parents, so that they will start having critical conversations with their kids about media.