Learning to Think Critically About Media

Do screens and screen time affect the lives of our children? Absolutely. Just how, exactly, depends on a number of variables:

  • What are they consuming, and why?
  • What is the content?
  • What are they doing, feeling or thinking while they consume?
  • What are they doing, feeling or thinking after they consume?
  • How do they integrate what they consume into their everyday lives, if at all?

Parents and caregivers can ask and talk about these essential questions with their children before, during and after they interact with media. This is especially important during the early years, when screen time customs start to form, and kids pick up cues from parents about viewing, interacting with and talking about media.

Why not just sit back and enjoy the media—why take the time to analyze it? The answer is simple: we live in a media-saturated world, and the earlier we give our kids a way to think about the content they encounter, the earlier they become educated consumers.

You can think of these conversations as “habits of thought”—and use them to build a foundation for how your child thinks about and interacts with media. By fostering your children’s ability to think critically about the content they encounter, and by thinking critically about this content yourself, you’re giving your kids an invaluable life skill—one that will prepare them to make more and more decisions for themselves, with less guidance from an adult, as they grow older.

In addition to thinking about and asking the questions above, try these tips to safeguard your child against passive media consumption—and to continue, as a family, to think carefully and critically.

  • Consume together when you can. This will give you a shared frame of reference in conversations—and something to talk about as a family.
  • Find out who created what you watch by looking them up online. Learn about the backstory—and discover their inspiration. information about the creators of Angry Birds, allowing families to extend the conversation to the who, what, when, why and how of this gaming phenomenon.
  • Discuss whether what you watch relates in any way to your real lives. Does the view of life portrayed seem realistic or not? Point to details, and discuss similarities and differences between what you experience and that represented on screen.
  • Use media as a springboard to discussing your values and beliefs. Consider what values and beliefs the media portrays—and how it matches or strays from your own principles.

Keep in mind, too, that the “vitamin” content of what you consume varies widely. How can you find media that teaches or inspires your children and family? What websites or other resources can help? This is where planning goes a long way. Take the time as a family to investigate, and make a list of programs, games and other media that fit the bill. As you go about compiling your list, also remember this: when you do encounter sub-par media, use it as an educational experience. Ask questions, and dive deep into a conversation, using some of the strategies listed above.

The amount of content created in our world far exceeds what we could possibly absorb. Did you know, for instance, that 48 hours of videos are uploaded to YouTube every passing minute?

Instead of fighting the losing battle of monitoring and negotiating the use of screens, teach and model ways to think about—and learn from—what is consumed. That is the only way.

Learn More

Parents TV Habits Can Harm Kids,” Anna Housley Juster, LearnNow.org

Screen Time: How Much is Too Much?” Curiosityville.com

Kids and TV: Maybe It’s Not an Idiot Box,” Eric Hayden, Pacific Standard

More Facebook, Lower Grades,” Time Magazine

Common Sense Media

Fred Roger’s Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at St. Vincent’s College