Teaching Media Literacy to Protect Our Children’s Health

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Who’s teaching your children about food and nutrition? As much as parents hope the answer is them, children are barraged by food messages from sources you might not have even considered. The amount of advertising we receive on a daily basis is staggering: television, Internet, radio, billboards, newspapers, magazines, cell phones, in supermarkets, food packaging, even in schools. Children and adults are constantly hearing where they should go to eat or what they should buy. With so much marketing coming at us constantly, it’s impossible for media not to have an influence unless we live somewhere with absolutely no contact with the outside world.

Parents need to teach their children how to be smart about buying their food – to realize that the purpose of food is to provide nutrition to the body. Children need to learn that there’s more to buying food than convenience, price, or emotional comfort. They need to learn how food choices affect their health, not just their checking accounts or their schedules.

Parents also need to teach their children that just because an advertiser makes a claim, it’s not necessarily accurate. For example, the majority of people who buy green brands do so because they want to be eco-conscious, but not all advertisers who claim to be green or sustainable or organic actually are. At one time, a popular fastfood restaurant chain claimed that its chicken nuggets were green because they didn’t have trans fats, but there was no information on how the chicken was raised or any other nutritional facts about the food. Even the term “organic” can get confusing, as many companies are now diluting this label to include naturally raised, yet not organically certified, foods.

The key to guiding our children’s ability to make smart consumer choices regarding food is to teach them to be media literate – using critical thinking to sort through the messages they are receiving in order to find the truth about the food being advertised and if it aligns with their own values and beliefs. It’s not censorship; it’s an antidote to excess media.

Through media literacy, consumers learn that all media is constructed to deliver a specific message to consumers and to persuade them of something – in the case of food purchases: where to go and what to buy. They learn how to think beyond the plate to find “food truth,” answering questions such as: Where did this food come from? Who produced it? How was it raised? What’s in it? How might eating this affect the environment, society, my community, my family, or me?

There are seven key questions for consumers to ask themselves before basing a food purchase on a media message they received:

  1. Who paid for the message?
  2. What is the purpose of the message?
  3. Who is the intended audience?
  4. What techniques are being used to grab and hold my attention?
  5. What is being sold?
  6. What is not included in the message?
  7. What are the unintended consequences of purchasing this food?

Using the case of a fastfood restaurant’s ad promoting the children’s menu, here’s how to use these questions:

  • Who paid for the message? McDonald’s
  • What is the purpose of the message? To sell food
  • Who is the intended audience? Parents
  • What techniques are being used to grab and hold my attention? Happy, fun character interacting with happy children
  • What is being sold? Inexpensive, convenient meal with toy
  • What is not included in the message? That the food is unhealthy
  • What are the unintended consequences of purchasing this food? Children learn unhealthy food choices from the parents’ decision, and children learn to overlook healthy food options such as homemade meals or healthier restaurants.

Here’s another example using advertising for a soft drink:

  • Who paid for the message? Coca-Cola
  • What is the purpose of the message? To sell bottles of a soft drink
  • Who is the intended audience? Children
  • What techniques are being used to grab and hold my attention? Bright colors, catchy slogans
  • What is being sold? Easy, inexpensive drink option
  • What’s not included in the message? That the drink is unhealthy
  • What are the unintended consequences of purchasing this food? Children learn unhealthy food choices from the school’s decision, and children learn to overlook healthy drink options such as milk or juice.

Sorting through media messages can be difficult to learn and to teach to others, but if we’re interested in protecting our children from these media messages, then we need to know how to do this.

 

 

Rita Brhel

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