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Encourage Kids' Critical Thinking on Ads
By Melinda Hemmelgarn
published Tuesday, July 3, 2007 in the Columbia Daily Tribune

Meredith Gibbons probably didn’t suspect that her name would come up in front of the sea of attendees at the opening session of the Alliance for a Media Literate America meeting last week in St. Louis. But Gibbons had just graduated from high school, and her father, state Sen. Michael Gibbons, couldn’t help but mix politics with pride as he reflected on the years his daughter lived under his guiding wing.

Gibbons presented AMLA with a Senate resolution recognizing the "extraordinarily important" value of media literacy education. After his formal welcome, he asked the audience to consider "what we hope for our children as they set off into the world."

"We hope that they’ll be empowered to make wise decisions and be able to critically think through thousands of media messages," Gibbons said. "We don’t want them to be sponges and absorb them all."

That’s what "media literacy education" is all about. The term might sound complicated, but keynote speaker Robin Blake, manager of the Media Literacy Team at the Office of Communications in the United Kingdom, described it simply as our ability to "access, understand and create communication in a variety of contexts." Media literacy’s end goal: creating an international society of informed consumers and active citizens.

Conference attendee Robert Kubey, director of the Center for Media Studies at Rutgers University, thinks Thomas Jefferson would have agreed with Blake. According to Kubey: "The Jeffersonian ideal of an informed electorate necessitates media literacy education."

No matter that Gibbons belongs to the Republican Party. Concerns for children and democracy draw no party lines. In fact, Robbyn Wahby, executive assistant to St. Louis’ Democratic Mayor Francis Slay, welcomed the AMLA conference to her favorite city, recognizing media literacy education as a "fundamental component of society."

Media literacy also plays a key role in public health. Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics voiced renewed concern about the 40,000 ads bombarding children and adolescents each year. The AAP said it was "alarmed that such exposure may contribute significantly to obesity, poor nutrition, cigarette and alcohol use." The AAP believes that "one simple solution would be to have children and adolescents become critical media viewers, also known as being media literate."

In 2005, the Institute of Medicine reported that television advertising has a direct influence on children’s food preferences as well as their nutritional knowledge. Pictures on food packages and words used on labels, for example, can confuse children.

Cyndy Scheibe, AMLA member and executive director of Project Look Sharp at Ithaca College in New York, presented research supporting the IOM. She found that children think food products have fruit in them if the package shows fruit or contains the word or a word that sounds like "fruit" in its name. For example, check "fruit drink" labels. By law, companies must state the percentage of fruit juice on their packages. Many popular brands contain only 5 percent to 10 percent real fruit juice, despite colorful fruit graphics. Scheibe also reported that children think Kellogg’s "Froot Loops" contain fruit because the product name sounds like "fruit." In truth, the "froot" comes from fruit flavors.

To help youths practice media literacy, take an active role in your family’s media consumption. Members of the AMLA recommend asking the following key questions when analyzing advertisements and media messages in general:

1. Who made the message?

2. Why was the message created, and what does the message want me to do?

3. Who is the target audience?

4. Who paid for the message?

5. Who might benefit from or be harmed by the message?

6. What is left out of the message?

7. What techniques are being used to persuade me?

8. Is this message fact, opinion or something else?

9. How credible is the message?

10. What are the sources of the information?

Next week, we’ll explore health information on the Internet and tools to avoid deception.


Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D., is a clinical dietitian, advocate for sustainable food systems and 2004-2006 Food and Society Policy Fellow. She lives in Columbia.


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