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Information inundation imperils our children

November 30, 2003|DAVID SHAW

We are, all of us, awash in media. Television. Movies. The Internet. Billboards. Newspapers. Magazines. Radio. Newsletters. Individually and collectively, we spend more time with more media than ever before -- an average of 10.5 hours a day, about 25% of that time using two media simultaneously, according to a recent study of "Middletown, USA" by the University of South Carolina.

Children in particular have become media-obsessed. Another recent study, this one by the Kaiser Family Foundation, found that 68% of kids 2 and younger spend an average of two hours a day in front of a screen, either television or computer. Children under 6 spend as much time in front of a screen as they do playing outside -- and three times as much as they spend reading or being read to.

Those numbers don't decline as the children grow older. Douglas Rushkoff, a professor of media culture at New York University, has coined the term "screen-agers" to convey the depth of this inundation.

Moreover, yet another study -- the 2003 Roper Youth Report -- shows that kids ages 8 to 17 have 10% more say now than they did a year ago in their families' media purchases: magazines, newspapers, music, DVDs.

Young people use the media primarily for entertainment and recreation, not for information and education. But news is ubiquitous -- headlines, snippets, bulletins, crawls -- and the very fact that young people spend so much time with media that have the potential to inform and educate gives our schools an enormous opportunity (and obligation) to teach new and increasingly valuable skills.

The opportunity goes beyond just helping children make sense of the news, of course. On the Internet in particular, a single click takes them into worlds at once forbidden and fascinating, sites with hidden (and not-so-hidden) agendas and pop-up commercial messages that don't even require a click.

Consider today's column a plea for media literacy classes in our nation's schools.

We live in increasingly complex times, and unless we teach our children how to read about, watch, interpret, understand and analyze the day's events, we risk raising a generation of civic illiterates, political ignoramuses and uncritical consumers, vulnerable not only to crackpot ideas, faulty reasoning and putative despots but fraudulent sales pitches and misleading advertising claims.

Teaching media literacy is, in a sense, teaching critical thinking, and it should "start early, with simple activities in preschool, and continue through high school," says Tessa Jolls, president and CEO of the Santa Monica-based Center for Media Literacy, which provides guidance and curricula for school districts interested in taking on this most challenging task.

"The Internet caused a sea change in what kids need and how teachers should teach and in what parents want for their kids," says Elizabeth Thoman, who founded the center four years ago. "The Internet has changed our understanding of how kids are learning, in every sense of that term, and now instead of parents worrying about their kids watching too many commercials on Saturday morning cartoons, there is this much larger issue of all the images and messages that come pouring in over the Internet."


Education transformation

Thoman, Jolls and their center draw their inspiration, in part, from the writings of the late David Berlo, a noted communications scholar and the former president of Illinois State University. Berlo believed that the transformation of our culture from an Industrial Age to an Information Age required a similar transformation in education.

"Most of what we have called formal education has been intended to imprint on the human mind all of the information that we might need for a lifetime," he wrote in 1975. But the simultaneous explosion in information and technology mean that "for the first time in history," it is no longer either possible or necessary to store all available information within the human brain, and Berlo argued that education must adjust accordingly.

"Education needs to be geared toward the handling of data rather than the accumulation of data," he wrote. "Humankind needs to be taught how to process information."

Kids today are confronted with "every conceivable content," Jolls says. "I want them to have the tools and skills to make good decisions for themselves on the media messages they see.

"For teenagers, that might start with learning to evaluate commercial messages so they can buy a car intelligently. But with the right instruction, that could ultimately lead to applying moral criteria in looking at violence or pornography, learning what's healthy and moral as well as what's practical and useful."

Jolls is not suggesting that educators abandon the 3 Rs in favor of some New Age gobbledygook or religious teaching -- only that media literacy be incorporated in the teaching of existing subjects.

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