How to watch protest coverage with your teen


Contrasting media portrayals of protestors in Ferguson, MO

News coverage, photos, videos, and social media posts related to the protests following the grand jury’s decision in Ferguson are everywhere. Some of it is verified information presented in a neutral way, but much of it is opinion and portrayals made with a particular bias. How can you help your teen think critically about what s/he is seeing? Here are some conversation starters.

How many people are actually protesting peacefully, and how many seem to be destructive? The news media and social media tend to focus more on violence, in part because the dramatic images attract more attention. But aiming the camera only at the violent actions of relatively few can misrepresent the behavior of many. Encourage your teen to watch and listen for the mentions of peaceful protestors and people who are trying to help rather than cause damage.

What are the facts, and what are the opinions? If your teen follows social media posts about the event, it’s especially important for them to recognize that not all statements made there are accurate. Some social media users create legitimate “citizen journalism” and report facts that the traditional media outlets may miss, but many post their own opinion as if it were fact. Encourage your teen to try to distinguish between the two.

What’s the background of the story, and where’s the best place to find it? Social media feeds and random Google searches often turn up only snippets of a story, or opinions about it. Encourage your teen to read ongoing comprehensive coverage of the cause of the protests from traditional news media such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the BBC.

How do you think your own opinions might make you see this a certain way? If we’re being honest, few of us would claim to be 100% prejudice-free. Encourage your teen to think about how s/he relates to the people being portrayed in media coverage, and how other people might interpret the coverage differently.


How to raise a teen who likes news

OMG_newspaperMost of the attention on teens and media focuses on violent video games, advertising, and social media. Their interaction with news is often neglected, which is unfortunate given how important this form of media is. News tells us what’s going on in the world outside, what we should be thinking about, what we should fear, and whom we should elect to represent us and our interests.

Parents of teens know that most kids this age have little interest in reading news on paper, and the stories they encounter online tend to be those shared by their friends. They might half-listen to a TV or radio news broadcast from time to time, or pick up a news magazine if there’s nothing else to read. What can a parent do to encourage a teenager to seek out information that’s about more than their immediate surroundings and social circle?

Consume news yourself, and talk about it. Kids of all ages model parents’ behavior, so if you don’t pay attention to the news your kids aren’t likely to, either. Make it part of your regular routine to listen to news in the car, read a newspaper, or read online news. Point out interesting stories to your teen, and engage him/her in a conversation about it.

Don’t scoff at what interests them. Many teens may find gossip websites far more interesting than the New York Times or the Atlantic Monthly. If you’re tempted to roll your eyes, engage them in a conversation instead. You’ll show some respect for media content they consider important, and you’ll learn more about what types of ‘real’ news might interest them.

Make it personal. Share stories with teens that are about people their age elsewhere in the world. A news article about a young person’s experience in another culture may be more likely to capture their interest than one about abstract political developments.

Encourage them to ask questions. Stories teens encounter in the news may frighten or confuse them, which may make them want to avoid news altogether. Talking with them about what they see or hear can help them process the information so they’re less likely to shut it out.

Next week, how to encourage teens to think critically about the news…


Superbowl commercial bingo – a critical thinking game

SuperbowlBingo_featuredimageThis Sunday, make watching the big game a teachable moment for your kids. Encourage them to watch the commercials more closely and critically than they usually do, and to identify ways that the advertisers try to get their attention.

Download this free 4-pack of bingo cards. Each card has a unique mix of 25 squares, which are individual elements they might see in a commercial. Two examples are: “Features a celebrity” and “Makes unbelievable claims about a product.” They’re parent-approved as appropriate for kids age 10 and older.

As they watch the game, kids can draw an X over a square when they see a commercial that matches the element in it. Prizes can be given for a row and/or a ‘blackout’ when the entire card is filled in. Parents or teachers can use this game as a conversation starter to get kids talking about what they saw in the commercials. For suggestions, download the Parent/Educator Guide.




How to watch a violent movie with a teenager

A scene from the 2013 film 'G.I. Joe: Retaliation.'

A scene from ‘G.I. Joe: Retaliation,’ one of the top-grossing movies of 2013.

It’s not news to anyone who lives in the U.S. that our movies are becoming more violent. And unless your child exists in an opaque, soundproof bubble, s/he will likely encounter violence in movies starting in early adolescence. Many kids enjoy being scared, and some even tend to be drawn toward gory, violent content in media. Others encounter it by accident, often in spite of parents’ efforts to prevent such exposure.

The good news is that media violence does not have a huge effect on behavior overall. Young people like the Columbine High School shooters or the Aurora movie theater shooter are outliers, extreme examples of media content affecting a person’s subsequent decisions and actions. The vast majority of young people who watch characters on screen shoot people and/or maim them will not enact such things themselves. Numerous external factors play a part in an individual’s capacity to imitate such behavior, including the level of violence in the home environment, the availability of weapons, and the person’s own psychological tendencies.

The bad news is that media violence does have some effect, and not just on outliers. One study, among others, demonstrated that exposure to a violent TV show caused children to become desensitized to aggressive behavior they later witnessed. In another study, children’s exposure to violent video games was associated with lower levels of empathy. Research on the ‘cultivation’ effect shows that people in general may perceive the world to be a scarier place than it is, due to exposure to media messages portraying it as such.

What can parents and other adults do to help a teenager evaluate media violence in a productive, critical way? Here are some conversation starters:

“How many people has this guy killed?” Encourage the teen to keep a body count, especially if the character doing a lot of killing is the hero of the story. Ask him/her where all the dead people are, as most movies tend to gloss over the consequences of what are essentially multiple homicides.

“That man’s family won’t ever seen him again.” When an innocent bystander is killed, it’s frequently depicted as no big deal in a shoot-’em-up movie. Encourage your teen to reflect on the fact that every body was a human being, with friends and a family. This may help counter the desensitization effect.

“If he’s killing so many people, why is he the good guy?” Hollywood movies tend to glamorize heroes and make light of their violent actions. Some heroes might kill for good reasons, such as saving otherwise doomed hostages. But many heroes kill for no good reason, and such deaths are often portrayed as necessary, inconsequential, or even humorous. Encouraging a teen to think about the hero’s character and decisions can start a good conversation about which actions are truly heroic, and which are unnecessary destruction.

The aim of all these conversations-starters is to prompt kids to think critically about what they’re seeing. People of all ages are less likely to have a purely affective response to media (as in, ‘wow, cool!’) if we engage cognitively with it.

Coming soon: An expert’s take on playing violent video games with your child.


How to read a fashion magazine with your daughter

Cover of an issue of Seventeen magazineTeens are surrounded by images of perfected faces and bodies. Not perfect, but perfected – by stylists, lighting, camera angles, and of course Photoshop. Many teens now have access to this type of technology, and some have even altered photographs of themselves. But they’re not professional touch-up artists, and they may not be aware of the extent to which photos of models and celebrities – and the people themselves – have been edited before appearing in the pages of their favorite magazines.

Teen girls and boys are both exposed to these types of images, and numerous studies (here’s one) have shown that reading fashion and fitness magazines can make young people of both genders more concerned with physical appearance and eating behaviors. In this post, I’ll focus on girls and fashion magazines. How can you help a young woman ‘read’ such images critically? Here are some conversation starters.

“How many people do you think helped her get ready?” Encourage your daughter to think about all the professionals on a photo shoot and their jobs: hair, makeup, lighting, photography, fans (if the model’s hair is blowing), and styling of clothing (assuming the outfit has no wrinkles). Then ask her how many hours she thinks it might have taken all these people to get the one shot they used. A great visual to use is Jamie Lee Curtis’ “True Thighs” photo shoot.

“What do you think she looked like in the shots that were thrown out?” When a photographer is ‘shooting’ a celebrity, the camera clicks constantly as the subject poses and smiles over and over. The model is surely blinking and making less-than-beautiful faces in many of them. Encourage your daughter to take a bunch of photos in quick succession of someone smiling and then not smiling, and see how many it takes to get one ideal image in which every element looks its best.

“What parts of the photo were probably edited in Photoshop?” In fashion magazines, nearly every photo is retouched, and dozens of websites feature unedited photos side-by-side with the final product: celebrity close-ups and full-body shots. Another useful site is this one by a professional retoucher, which lets you mouse over an image to see the original photo.

Encourage your daughter to find more information online about what size a typical model wears, compared to an average, healthy girl of her age. Point out media images of strong women such as athletes, and talk about what they likely eat to fuel their bodies. By helping your daughter to develop critical awareness of images in the media, you can bolster her own self-image and encourage her to feel strong and beautiful in the face of media messages that suggest otherwise.



How to watch a sex scene with your teenager

How to watch a sex scene with your teenagerThis is definitely in the Top 10 Awkward Parenting Situations. Maybe you’ve already talked with your teen about sex, or maybe you’ve yet to do so. Regardless, it’s inevitable that at some point, you’ll be watching a movie or a TV show together, and you’ll see characters on screen doing THAT.

So what’s the big deal? Why not take a bathroom break, talk about something else, pick up your phone, or do anything to try to gloss over the fact that both of you would rather not be watching a sex scene together? Here’s why: Because it’s a valuable way to start a tough but needed conversation.

If s/he is typical, your teenager sees a lot of sexual content in the media, on TV, online, in music videos, movies, and even some video games. To simplify a bit, let’s focus on TV. Of the 20 shows most popular with teens, ‘70% include some kind of sexual content, and nearly half (45%) include sexual behavior.’ This is according to a 2005 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

And some of the messages about sex sink in, for better or worse. The Kaiser study found that ‘nearly three out of four 15- to 17-year-olds say sex on TV influences the sexual behaviors of kids their age.’ Those TV shows do not necessarily depict the consequences of sex; in fact, of teens’ favorite programs, only one out of ten shows with sexual content includes a reference to sexual risks or responsibilities, such as STDs or contraception.

So what should you do in this uncomfortable situation?

Keep it light-hearted. We were all teenagers once, and I for one remember wanting to crawl between the cushions of the couch until the sex scene was over and I could look my mom in the eye again. Don’t try to have a Talk with your teenager at that moment unless s/he seems open to it. But you can still encourage her/him to think critically without making it a big production.

Say, “I hope they’re using condoms.” Or “I wonder if both of them have been tested.” Simple comments like these can get your teen to think about the consequences of sex that are probably not being portrayed in the program or the movie.

Say, “Do you think they’ll make good parents?” Few things disrupt the viewing of a sex scene like the thought of accidental pregnancy. Some teens think about it, but many do not, and most TV shows about sex (between teens or adults) don’t address it.

Say, “It seems like all these kids are hooking up with each other all the time. Is that realistic?” This may be Advanced Parenting 101. Only you can know how your teen might react to this question. But if it’s possible to have this conversation, do so. Some shows and movies about teenagers depict them as far more sexually active than teens are in real life. Posing this question may help them talk about pressure they feel, either from their peers or from the media.

It’s uncomfortable for sure, but taking advantage of conversation-starters like these can help your teen process media messages about sex with a critical eye, and make more informed choices in the future.

How to watch a food commercial with your child

How to watch a food commercial with your childChildren ages 2 – 7 see an average of 12 food ads per day, or 4,400 in a year. Older children (8 – 12) see almost double that amount. Nearly half of all ads shown during children’s programming are for food. These are figures from a recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which reports that “34% [of these ads] are for candy and snacks, 28% are for cereal, and 10% are for fast food.”

As parents already know, these ads work. Children request advertised food more often, and they even preferred the taste of branded food in an experiment that used identical foods, one sample with a fast food label and one without.

Even with the most rigorous monitoring of media content, kids are bound to see food ads sooner or later. How can parents help their children view these ads critically?

Watch the ads together, and talk about them. The simple act of ‘co-viewing’ and talking about the ads encourages children to engage with the ads rather than passively ‘consume’ them. So what should you say? Here are some suggestions to get a conversation started.

Ask how the ads make the food look appealing. Children might need some prompting on this question, depending on their age. If it’s an animated ad, a cereal might be made to look ‘magical,’ as it can fly or sparkle. In an ad for Lunchables, the child eating the product might be portrayed as especially popular among peers. In a fast food ad, everyone might be shown having a good time and laughing. Encourage children to identify ways the ads make the food look ‘cool.’

Ask how the food looks in real life. This is especially useful with regard to fast food ads, which feature styled food that is wearing a lot of ‘makeup.’ If the child has ever ordered that food in a restaurant, s/he can see that it doesn’t look the same as it does in the ad. Encourage children to compare the two, as it helps them recognize that commercials are not necessarily realistic.

Ask what’s in the food. This is an ongoing question, one that is best asked later on in the kitchen, or even the grocery store. Read nutrition labels for advertised foods with children, and help them understand what’s in it.

The key to watching food commercials with children is to encourage them to ask questions, rather than giving them a ‘lecture’ or telling them what’s good or bad. When you encourage them to view an ad critically, you’re helping them to develop a skill they can apply to other ads in the future.


How to watch a beer commercial with your child

How to watch a beer commercial with your childIt’s no secret that many kids see ads for alcohol – on TV, online, in magazines, and on billboards. One 2006 study suggests that the typical child sees about 23 alcohol ads per month. And the ads work; a study published the next year found that adolescents who saw alcohol ads were 50 percent more likely to be consuming alcohol a year later.

An obvious way to deal with this is not to let them see alcohol advertising. But this is mighty difficult to do, since many prime-time shows and cable networks popular with youth and adolescents show alcohol advertising. So how should parents handle their children’s exposure?

Watch it with them, and talk about it. According to a study in the Journal of Adolescent Health, parental guidance had a positive impact on a number of outcomes among young people age 9 – 17. So what should you say?

Ask them what they like about the ads. Be specific. Help them identify aspects of the commercial – attractive people, fun, music, bright colors, etc. – that attracts their attention.

Ask them what the ad is supposed to do, and who is supposed to see it. This helps them understand the purpose of advertising, which isn’t always clear to younger children. The second part helps them understand that ads target specific groups of people, and that they themselves might be in that group.

Ask them if they think the ads are realistic. This encourages kids to engage rationally with the commercial, and a rational, cognitive response can help counter the “I like it, it looks cool” reaction. Older kids might have heard about some of the negative consequences of overconsumption, and they might recognize that such things are left out of the ads.

The key is to engage kids and ask them questions about the ad, rather than merely telling them what you think about it. Asking questions encourages them to think critically about such media messages, and may help them make better decisions in the years to come.

Have you had any conversations with your kids about alcohol advertising?

(sources: E.W. Austin, M.-J. Chen, and J. W. Grube. (2006). How does alcohol advertising influence underage drinking? The role of desirability, identification and skepticism. Journal of Adolescent Health 38: 376–384;