Raising Media Literate Children

by Gloria DeGaetano, M. Ed.

This article first appeared in the book, Safe by Design, published by The Committee for Children, Seattle, Washington.

John Dewey, the great education innovator, once said, "The environment teaches." What he basically meant by that simple statement is that what surrounds the child also teaches the child. In today's world of screen technologies, the media environment becomes increasingly pervasive and increasingly an important teacher for our children. Consider the statistics: By age eighteen, students will have spent at least 22,000 hours watching television—compared to 11,000 hours in twelve years of classroom instruction. (1) Before kindergarten, preschoolers will have spent more time watching TV than a college student spends in four years of classes, about 5,000 hours. (2) The average elementary school age child watches TV four-five hours a day. (3) Combined with playing video or computer games, watching rented videos, and going to movie theaters, the accumulated time American children spend in front of visual screens is staggering.

Most of the time children spend viewing is time alone without the helpful guidance of an adult to mediate the images and help children make sense of them. The cumulative effect of all this passive viewing is that children grow up ill-equipped to think critically about screen content. In today's society it's ironic that children are taught how to read and write, but seldom are they taught how to "read" media, that is, how to understand, interpret, and analyze the visual messages they see everyday. Yet this skill, called, media literacy, is essential if our children are to be well prepared for the 21st Century.

Three Important Reasons for Teaching Media Literacy

Most parents and educators have strong hunches that too much TV isn't good for kids, but the specifics of why this is so is not generally known. Over the past ten years I have synthesized research from nuerophysiology, psycholinguistics, and psychological and educational research and have concluded that there are three main areas affected by TV overuse in the home which profoundly affects children's cognitive, emotional, and social development. Understanding the specifics of how overuse of TV displaces important childhood developmental tasks can help parents, teachers, and child-care providers to begin to outline specific strategies for controlling TV and video effectively, the first step in media literacy.

  1. TV time displaces physical movement and tactile, sensory-rich experiences.

    Over-use of the TV screen frequently means under-use of young cardiovascular systems. To develop healthy hearts, lungs, and muscles, children need regular exercise. There is a high level of concern by many health professionals that in this age of screens, children are sitting more than ever and becoming more out of shape than ever before. For instance, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a report which revealed "that up to 50% of school-age children were not getting enough exercise to develop healthy hearts and lungs, and that 40% of youngsters between ages five and eight exhibit one risk factor for heart disease." (4) In a study of 1,097 children, researchers at the University of California found that those who watched two or more hours of TV daily were at increased risk of having high cholesterol levels when they become adults. The risk climbs the more they watch. (5)

    As well as strengthening the growing body, physical activity in childhood builds the motor control centers in the low brain areas, ensuring proper large and small muscle coordination and developing a mature sensory-motor system, necessary for accurately perceiving and processing incoming information to the brain. Physical activity also allows for the eventual mature development of all brain systems. When a child watches television usually there is little movement. Watching a nature show is treated differently by the brain than actually hiking through the woods. Although the content of television varies, the experience is always the same. Staring at two-dimensional picture images cannot and will not build those brain capacities nourished by physical, tactile experiences, such as art, dance, sports, sand and water play, where the simultaneous activation of the child's senses can occur and where the child is actively involved. Without these types of activities on a consistent basis children, especially those under the age of eight, are at risk for future learning and behavior problems.

  2. Passive TV watching displaces language expression, reading, and listening to complex language structures.

    When children are watching TV they are not usually talking and thus not learning to express themselves or their ideas. They certainly are not reading and exercising their imaginations. And although, they are listening to words spoken on the screen most of what they listen to are sound bites lacking enough linguistic complexity to build their language abilities. Also, salient visual images often "get in the way" of paying much attention to the language. When children under research conditions watch a TV program whose auditory tract differs from the visual images, many times what they remember as the "story" is the visual display. TV also can't respond to the child; it can't ask or answer a question or repeat or slow down or stop to give the child time to absorb what's being said. And much of the time the images are coming in faster than the child can thoughtfully process them. However, anytime a child is immersed in conversation, reading, or concentrated listening more active engagement of the child is required. For instance, when a child listens to a story being read aloud at bedtime several important things are happening: She is activating her own visual imagination inside her head, not watching someone else's images. She is learning how to focus and concentrate her attention on complex language and ideas. She is responding to the narrative, figuring out what makes a story a story. She may be curious about something and stop the information flow by asking a question. She is basically learning to think.

    Listening to language is so important for children under twelve that busy parents should consider investing in an audio tape recorder and obtaining story tapes from the local library for additional language input. With a little practice children will sit and listen to a story on audio tape by themselves. Even young children can enjoy learning how to use the tape recorder and can become independent in their choice of "story tape time." When parents need a break, or have to get dinner on the table, or just want the child to sit quietly for awhile, plugging her into a story tape instead of into the television is a good option. If American children were spending more time listening to stories read aloud than they spend watching TV or playing video games I think we would see a rapid increase in our national test scores since most experts will agree that there is no better way to ensure children's future learning success and thinking abilities than reading aloud to them.

    But vital communication skills and analytical thinking abilities also emerge when children spend regular time in conversation with adults or reading a good book. Yet, these language activities are increasingly being displaced as children sit passively in front of picture visuals more often than they do anything else (except sleep!). Pictures on the screen are immediately accessible. As Dr. Russell Harter, a major investigator of television and the growing brain, points out, "Television... is not very symbolic...it makes things easy to understand." (6) Language, though, in any form, whether it be print, sound, Braille, or sign language, is basically symbolic. It is a representation of concepts and thoughts whose meaning must be unlocked by the workings of the cerebral cortex. Watching pictures on the TV set does not in and of itself require mental gymnastics, especially for children's developing brains. It is only when conversation is added—a question is asked; a comment given, that helps the child develop the cognitive structure to make sense of the images. A TV in the house doesn't necessarily mean that family members will stop talking and engaging in conversations. But unless adults intentionally engage children in conversation about what's coming across the screen; children can grow up to prefer passive viewing to active thinking.

  3. Developing brains need plenty of mental challenges.

    The adage, "Use it or lose it," aptly applies to the human brain. The brain must be challenged regularly or important abilities will be shortchanged and eventually lost. Dr. Marian Diamond, Professor of Anatomy and Director of the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California, has found that the structure of cells in the brain's cerebral cortex physically changes as a result of sustained intellectual exercise, with individual neurons developing more connective links to other neurons. (7) Thus, when the brain is used for thinking, its potential for even more sophisticated thinking increases. By allowing children unlimited access to screens while not providing enough activities such as creative play, hobbies, reading, or homework, parents unintentionally contribute to a deprived mental environment for children which can seriously affect the rate and quality of brain growth. On the other hand, by not using TV and video in the home to challenge children's thinking, we, as a society are missing golden opportunities to use the medium to support children's cognitive development. Because it can. Just by talking with a child and asking a few questions during a TV program, parents can pose mental challenges, nurturing both language and thinking abilities.

Countering Media Violence with Media Literacy

Before the age of twelve, U. S. children witness about 20,000 murders and at least 80,000 assaults on television. (8) While controlling the time children spend in front of the screen is critical for healthy development, controlling screen content is equally important for the same reason. Children are born to imitate. That's how Mother Nature ensures that children learn. Scientific studies show that newborns will imitate facial expressions of the adults around them and before the age of two, children begin to mimic what they see on the screen.

Many experts believe that images of violence are quick to arouse children's attention because they arouse the basic instinct of survival. By keeping the story plot or the video game moving fast and the excitement high, constant streams of violent images keep the adrenaline pumped and the low brain, the seat of our survival instinct, on alert. When this part of the brain is preoccupied with danger, the cerebral cortex, or seat of rational thought is hard pressed to function optimally. In effect, violent images keep the instincts and feelings keenly aroused while reducing thinking functions.

The more violent the action, the more likely children are to keep watching because every violent action requires a change of image, that is, a very quick scene change. Continual scene changes arouse the primitive instinct to look at what might be dangerous. Experts call this the "orienting response." Parts of the human brain are basically wired to urge us to look at sudden changes in our environment. The more scene changes on the screen, then, the greater our propensity to keep watching. Since children are more stimulus bound than adults, they are much more vulnerable to these effects.

In children's cartoons, images change on average every three to five seconds and their violent acts are five times higher than those in adult programming. In one study, 2,000 violent scenes were observed in 180 hours of programming. (9) MTV music videos convey an image change every second or less and contain 29 acts of violence per hour. (10)

Although most children will not become criminals from exposure to media violence, all children are harmed in some way. Researchers point out four basic effects of media violence:

Without media literacy skills children are left vulnerable to these effects. But with media literacy skills, children of all ages can begin to put media violence into meaningful contexts, learn to distinguish sensitive portrayals of violence from the sensational, and begin to articulate how violent images might impact personal choices of attitude and behavior.

Teaching Media Literacy: At Home

Teaching media literacy skills at home can best be described in one word: Talk. Talk and talk and talk some more. In fact, the heart of media literacy lies in the power of discussion. A free-flow exchange of ideas gives children invaluable skills in the art of communication and provides numerous opportunities to try out ideas in a safe environment. Regular family media literacy discussion sessions, once or twice a week, over months or even years, can have a profound effect on a child's understanding of screen content and its impact. Through these family interactions children will gain specific knowledge and skills which will help them throughout their entire lives to think, discern, and question media messages. These discussions can take place around the TV, before during, or after viewing. Or they can occur spontaneously in the middle of everyday activities—while Mom drives the kids to the soccer game or as Dad folds the clothes. Just as parents ask questions about a child's day at school, so too they can ask questions about a movie or TV program. Younger children can answer to the best of their abilities; older children can handle more analytical types questions. Below are some examples:

For children under eight:

For children nine through twelve:

Research points out that when children grow up in homes where discussion of TV is par for the course, they are much less likely to be negatively influenced by media violence, advertising ploys, and depictions of gender and racial stereotypes. The important thing is to keep the lines of communication open. Then when children see an inappropriate movie or play a violent video game at a friend's house they are much more apt to discuss it with their parents. In this way parents not only help to mediate potentially harmful images, but also build trust. The saying "We can't protect them forever." really holds true in this media age. I like to think that teaching media literacy skills inoculates children against the potential harm. It gives them strength and resistance skills to be exposed to a media environment without becoming contaminated by it. Also, with media literacy skills children learn that their own ideas, their own creativity, and their own abilities are just as (or more) important as the ones they see on the screen everyday. While talking with children about media is critical, parents can also build a home environment which will support thoughtful use of TV and video. Some ways to do this could include:

  1. Balance children's lives. Make sure children participate in a variety of activities and experiences throughout childhood. Some families have found it helpful to make it a rule that for every hour spent watching TV or playing a video game, children spend the same amount of time in activities which require focused concentration and critical thinking such as reading, doing homework, working with puzzles, learning a musical instrument. Others keep the dinner hour sacred by enjoying family conversations without the TV on; for many a once a week, special no-TV family night of art, music, dance or time together to complete a household chore has helped a great deal for broadening children's horizons.
  2. Carefully decide where the television is placed. Many households report reducing viewing time by keeping the television set where family members have to go to it and be intentional about using it, but also where parents can easily monitor what children watch. Most child development experts believe that a TV in a child's bedroom might make controlling TV too difficult for parents and the TV habit too easy for children.
  3. Establish family rules and strive for consistency. Rules will vary depending on the age and stage of a child's development. But many parents report having luck with rules such as: homework must be finished before TV watching or video game playing; no watching TV while doing homework; no TV before school. Setting a daily or a weekly time limit; using a timer for video game play; and making clear expectations about what children can watch when visiting friends are other sound rules that encourage media literacy.
  4. Deal directly with media violence. Children under eight need protection from glamorized portrayals of media violence as much as possible. But with children of all ages discussion is essential. Together parents and children can count the number of violent acts in cartoons or action-adventure movies and discuss how the writers create pseudo-excitement to keep us watching. It's important to ask children how the program or movie could be improved with less violence and discuss ways problems can be solved non-violently. When buying video and computer games parents can stick with non-violent ones, those requiring more thoughtful responses from children and less trigger finger reactions.
  5. Be creative with TV and video. So often we think of creativity as a special gift for a few people. Not so. We all have great creative ideas and implement them often in our daily routines—for instance, every time we knit an afghan, raise a garden, figure out ways to outfox a stubborn two-year. Why not think of fun, creative ways to deal with TV? Put a sheet over the tube and listen to your favorite show. How do the kids see the characters in their minds? How is this "viewing" experience different from the usual one? On a rainy day rent a video about a national park; watch and discuss it with the children while you eat a picnic lunch. Watch an older sit-com such as The I Love Lucy Show. Compare it to a more recent sitcom. How is it the same? different? Which is more interesting? Why? There are lots of ways families can break out of the routine and show their children how much fun it can be to think in creative ways about visual messages.

Schools Can Help

How the screen habit is handled in the home can be a significant factor affecting a student's success in the classroom. Teachers can support parents in dealing with TV and video effectively by sharing information with them. For instance, during parent conferences teachers can let parents know that experts, such as The American Academy of Pediatrics recommend no more than two hours of viewing time daily. (12) Not many parents are aware of this strong recommendation and the reasons behind it. Teachers can also point out the role TV and video games have in displacing homework time and help parents devise time-prioritizing strategies for their students. Teachers can keep an eye out for students who can't pay attention; who are easily distracted, and who have trouble completing assignments. Overuse of TV has been linked with children's inability to persevere to an outcome, especially when the task is difficult. Parents of children having this type of problem can be asked, "How much TV is s/he watching?" and if the child exceeds the recommended limit, the teacher can inform the parent of the research and see if it applies to the situation. Most of all, educators can introduce the idea of media literacy to parents, helping them to see that there is a way to make the home media environment safe, and even productive, for their children.


  1. Conrad Phillip Kottak, Prime-Time Society: An Anthropological Analysis of Television and Culture. (Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1990), p. 3.
  2. Thomas Lickona, M. D., Raising Good Children: Helping Your Child Through the Stages of Moral Development. (New York: Bantam Books, 1983), p. 350.
  3. George Comstock, "The Medium and the Society: The Role of Television in American Life," in Children and Television: Images in a Changing Sociocultural World. Gordon Berry and Joy Keiko Asamen, eds. ( Newbury Park: Sage Publications, 1993), p. 129.
  4. Jane M. Healy, Endangered Minds: Why Our Children Don't Think (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990), 168.
  5. Gloria M. DeGaetano, Television and the Lives of Our Children (Redmond: Train of Thought Publishing, 1993), p.2.
  6. Healy, Endangered Minds, p. 208.
  7. Marian Cleeves Diamond, "Plasticity of the Brain: Enrichment vs. Impoverishment," in Television and the Preparation of the Mind for Learning: Critical Questions on the Effects of Television on the Developing Brains of Young Children, ed. Cheryl Clark and Kara King (Vienna: Ellsworth Associates, Inc., 1992), pp. 8-19.
  8. John P. Murray, "The Developing Child in a Multimedia Society," in Gordon Berry and Joy Keiko Asamen, eds., Children and Television: Images in a Changing Sociocultural World.
  9. S. R. Lichter and D. Amundson, "A Day of Television Violence," in Violence in the Media: An Annotated Bibliography (Studio City: Mediascope, 1992), p.13.
  10. R. Caplan, "Violent Program Content in Music Videos," Journalism Quarterly 62 (1985): 144-147.
  11. Safeguarding our Youth: Violence Prevention for Our Nation's Children, Report from the Working Group on Media, (Washington, DC, July 20-21, 1993), p. 4.
  12. American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Communications, "Children, Adolescents, and Television," Pediatrics 85: 1119-1120.

Gloria DeGaetano, Founder and CEO of The Parent Coaching Institute, presents keynotes and workshops to parents, educators, corporations, and professional organizations. She may be contacted at (425) 449-8877. Her latest book is Parenting Well in a Media Age: Saving Our Children from the Corporate-Controlled Culture, Personhood Press, January, 2004.