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Critical Media Chats With Your Tween

by Marta Sánchez, Ph.D.

Media and Tweens: How Is Your Child Being Affected?

Images in the media can possibly affect your children’s behavior and grades and influence their future. It’s time for a serious talk right now. A 2010 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that social media, television, music, videos and cell phones overexpose children and youth to message after message and carry images and words that influence even the youngest of children. Let’s look at some of the statistics:

  • 8-18 year-old youth devote an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes to using entertainment media across a typical day (more than 53 hours a week).
  • 66% of light media users report getting A’s and B’s in school, whereas only 51% of heavy media users report doing so
  • TV was the biggest source of media exposure for all groups
  • Tweens were the most exposed group to TV content, computers and video games
  • Tweens had the highest level of media exposure and highest level of media use
  • Children and youth who reported more time using media also reported being less content

Children and youth’s relationship to media is inevitable. Even schools use videos, computers and television as teaching aids. What matters is that you talk to your child about how media exposure might be impacting them, and why it’s important to limit their use.

Media Influence Starts Early

Teach children as young as preschool-aged to question the words and pictures they encounter in their world.

Education professor and researcher, Vivian Vasquez, teaches children as young as preschool-aged to question the words and pictures they encounter in their world. One impressive experience she created for and with her preschoolers was questioning the language, images and packaging of Happy Meals. The children brought in examples of toys they had gotten from Happy Meals, and Vasquez showed them pictures of the packaging. The children focused especially on the name of the popular children’s meals, “Happy Meals.” In their weeks-long exploration, the children came to pose and respond to insightful questions, such as, “Why does McDonald’s want us to be happy?” and “Why do we get a toy with our meal?” Vasquez positions her work as ‘negotiating critical literacies with young children.’

Negotiating Media with your Tween

When you think about how  your child encounters all sorts of images and words that s/he has to respond to, assimilate or reject, you know that they could use the gentle guidance of you, the parent. As parents and caregivers, you can embed Critical Media Chats (CMC) in your daily conversations with your pre-teen. Images and words come in all sizes and shapes, from a picture that goes viral on the internet to ads on a billboard, from comments on a talk show to fashion spreads in magazines, your tween is learning in both stealth and overt ways how the world sees her/him and others and what behaviors are considered okay and not okay for someone their age, race, gender, and and even socio-economic level. But how do children come to take on identities and behaviors? Do they model what they see before them, copying it?

A family is seated on their living room sofa and watching TV together, with their backs to the camera. Horizontally framed shot.

“Tweens are still connected to family and your guidance but are increasingly looking to their peers for models and ways of being and to seek their approval and acceptance.”

Family Tensions Around Media Are OK. Parents Have to Step Up for Tweenhood On This One

Tensions will come up between you and your tween because of his/her changing identity. These tensions are opportunities for engaging in Critical Media Chats, or CMCs. Key to engaging in CMCs is being knowledgeable about social media, not just Facebook and Twitter; there are countless more choices. It’s also important to have a family computer that tweens use in sight of family interactions.

Kaiser - July

Having Critical Media Chats in

The focus here switches to talking with your tween about the media they encounter and use to launch their own images and words into the world.

Here are some possibilities for CMCs:

Play It Cool With Older Tweens

  1. Ask. “What’s trending on [insert social media name]?”
  2. Wonder out loud. “I wonder why that’s such a hot topic right now?” If no response, add, “What do you think?”
  3. Prompt. “What response would you post to that [insert the trending topic]?

Black mom and daughter learning on tablet sitting at home in sofa

Play It Straight

  1. Put the topic on the table. “I want us to have Critical Media Chats every other day. We’ll call them CMCs, and this is how we’ll do it.”
  2. Outline the plan.
    • “I  am going to pick an image or words from social media, a video, TV or a magazine, or something someone sends me, and you are going to do the same. Then, we’re going to talk about each one, yours and mine.”
    • “We’re going to do this every other day, or whenever it can’t wait that long.”
  3. Explain why CMCs matter.
    • “You’re growing up, and that is the coolest thing in the world! So, I want you to think about who you’re becoming, the things we tell you here at home about growing up and what the world is telling you. I want to be part of that conversation in the same way your friends and people you admire, like [insert idol your tween might have or community role model you know they respect] are.”
    • “Media is everywhere and we can’t avoid its influence. There are cases when this influence is important, like when we receive important health information or we want to know how to act in an emergency. In a lot of cases, media is tricky. It seems like fun, but it has other layers to it. I want us to figure some of it out together.”
    • “It’s important that we do this together; there’s a lot going on out there, even in the shows we like to watch and the music we like to listen to, the pictures we take of each other. It’s good to figure out what stories these all tell about us, about you, and about who you want to become.”
    • “What do you think? We can make it like a game or a conversation.”
  4. Structure them any way you want, or let them come up naturally.
    • In the grocery store, “Look at this cereal box. Do you think I can look that good if I eat this cereal?”
    • At the drive through, “Look, the more you buy, the cheaper it gets. Why do you think that is?”
    • Looking at a Billboard, “Do you think that girl is too thin?”
    • Paging through a magazine, “I wonder how long it took to get her hair to look that way. What do you think?”
    • Responding to the news, “Did she just say the person was ‘acting up’ and that’s why she got arrested?’
    • Responding to racialized bullying on social media, “Look at this comment, this man wrote, “‘Stop your whining, not everything is about race.’ Huh, what do you think he means by that?”
    • Responding to racial exclusion, “Why does this store’s advertising never features a Black person in it?”
  5. Be prepared to bridge some of the prompts, especially with younger tweens who may not know what to say.
  6. Don’t condemn your tween if his/her response isn’t what you want to hear.
    • Listen. Listen to them and keep the conversation going. If your child says, ‘The man is right, not everything is about race.’ Ask, ‘Okay, but why does he say ‘stop your whining’ when this article was about Black children being bullied because of their hair? Do you think that’s whining?
  7. Pay attention to how your tween is responding to the CMCs. Don’t give up on these chats, but at the same time, realize that your tween, as every other person in the world, needs time to think about the conversations they’re having. Back off if you see a lot of resistance, BUT revise your strategy for getting back in.

If you have a CMC with your tween, or have had, let us know in the comments section below what your strategy was and how your tween responded.


Managing Editor | @SBPeditorialMarta Sanchez Profile 

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