How a Little Media Literacy Can Help Prevent Another Steubenville

Almost two months ago, I was invited to the San Antonio Living show to talk about the commercials that aired during the Super Bowl, but more specifically about body image and how some of those commercials might adversely affect girls' and women's self-image. I had a lot of fun doing the show, despite my nerves (it was my first time appearing on any morning show, speaking as an expert on this topic) and I'm really proud of myself for having stepped out of my comfort zone. And in that regard it was a success.

But I was a little bummed that I didn't get to talk about this one commercial that I really, really wanted to talk about.

And then Steubenville happened. And I just couldn't stop thinking - obsessively almost - about the one commercial that I really, really wanted to talk about, but didn't get to talk about. Because the lessons learned from talking about this particular commercial can be monumental.

So I'm gonna do it here. {grin}

Do y'all remember the Audi commercial? The prom one? Where the teen dude, faced with the dismal prospect of attending his senior prom alone [the horror!], is handed the keys to a shiny black Audi S6 by his sympathetic dad. His night is suddenly transformed. His confidence grows with every mile as he cruises to the dance and pulls into the principal's parking spot. Now completely emboldened, he beelines to the pretty blond prom queen, whisks her off her feet and plants on her an impassioned kiss. The final shot is of him driving back home in his dad's Audi with a big grin and a black eye, courtesy of the prom king.  Just in case you don't remember (and my summary just isn't working for you), here it is:

And at the end, we're cheering for him, am I right?
Hooray for you dude! Hooray for your bravery! You got the girl!!!

It's a really cute commercial, right?

I thought Audi did a fantastic job - a great story with a believable character that we all totally invested in and ultimately cheered for - all in 30 seconds!

And I still do really appreciate this commercial. But then I took a second glance, and something didn't sit quite right.

The rub was in the underlying message that our children internalize, especially if we are not actively engaging ourselves in teaching our children about media literacy, teaching them how to healthfully internalize media images that they see every day.

Now, both you and I, as adults, know that this commercial is simply a construct of an ideal - a cute story that successfully resonates with all of our emotions regarding love and romance and bravery, all wrapped up into this cute little package to try and sell a car.

BUT, the human brain does not fully mature until the early to mid twenties. So when our littles, tweens, teens and even young adults see this type of commercial, this is what they see and understand:

  • boy is sad he's going to prom alone
    {media message: you have to have a date for prom or you won't have fun}
  • boy gets to drive dad's shiny black Audi which emboldens him to go to prom happy
    {media message: you have to have a nice shiny car to have confidence/be happy}
  • boy parks in principal's parking space
    {media message: you can break rules and do anything you want when you have a nice shiny car}
  • boy walks up to prom queen and plants a big kiss on her
    {media message: you are allowed to walk up to any girl and just kiss her just because you want to, without her consent, under the guise of bravery - but especially if you have a nice shiny car. More detrimental, girls can internalize that it's okay for a boy to grab her and kiss her in the name of courage and bravery.}

A pretty dangerous message if we don't talk to our kids about what they're seeing... or what they don't even realize they're seeing, right?

We can make a really big mistake when we assume that our kids can critically think things out for themselves. We need to teach our kids how to "read" media just as we teach them how to read literature.

Unfortunately, media literacy is just not a big part of our culture. But we really need to make it a part of our culture. A part of our daily conversations. Because our children are learning more from the internet, movies, television, video games and other media than any other educational form.  What is most concerning is that these impressionable young minds are absorbing more than 10 hours of media every day!  Furthermore, in this day and age, parental controls for what these kids are exposed to are limited. And increasingly more-so, the media content that portrays girls/women is becoming more violent, sexual and demeaning.

If we don't start engaging in conversations around media literacy with our children, teaching them how to think critically about media messages, then we run the risk of our children internalizing the wrong message... which, ultimately, will only lead to more cases like Steubenville or like the many (courageous) personal accounts of similar stories OR close calls that many bloggers shared with their readers after Steubenville in order to bring awareness to a problem that sadly, has probably occurred many more times than we know or would like to acknowledge.

How to Engage With Your Kids About What They See

  1. Take a second look. Often we miss things the first time we hear or look at media. Taking a second look allows us to find things in the media that may have escaped our attention the first time. It teaches us how to discover the
    second and third levels of meaning in media.

    Examples using the above commercial: "Wow! That was a really great commercial! What did you think about that? ...But you know, I don't really like the way it suggests that you have to have a nice shiny car to be brave... did you catch that? ...It's a really cute story, but if any guy were to come up and plant a kiss on me without my permission, I'd have a serious problem with that. What do you think?"

  2. Teach them that all media has a purpose and a target audience. Purposes can be to persuade, to entertain, to inform, to explain, to make a profit, etc. Ask open-ended questions that allow your children to determine the purpose of the media and who the target audience might be.

  3. Talk about point of view. All media is a carefully wrapped package designed to construct a specific version of reality told from a singular point of view. Ask open-ended questions about the varying points of view.

    Example using the above commercial: "So how do you think the prom queen felt? How would you feel if you were her or that were your sister? What's her perspective? What kinds of stereotypes did you notice?"

  4. Educate them that media is about money. It is all about the bottom line. Good media students don’t forget that media is there to try to sell something: ideas, products, or even a way of life. It’s entertainment, yes. But almost always, it’s also selling a product.

  5. Educate them that ultimately, media promotes an agenda. Often the attitude of media is a reflection of the attitude of the person or people who made it. When you experience any media, you can tell what its producers stand for, what they believe in, and what view of the world they are trying to present/sell to you.

Once you start talking and teaching them to think critically about the images that they consume, it will become second nature to them and they'll become smart, educated consumers rather than victims of hidden media messages that their young brains cannot fully comprehend.

Do you practice media literacy with your kids? What has worked for you? Do you have any stories that you'd like to share? I'd love to hear them!

created on Wordle applet

created on Wordle applet