5 Questions To Help Teens Interpret Culture

Try and imagine a future where the morality and social awareness the world’s inhabitants is shaped entirely by tabloid current affairs programs, viral YouTube videos, and MTV.

Hopefully it won’t be the entire population, but there are an increasing number for whom such a reality is becoming increasingly probable.

A 2010 survey found that children and teenagers in North America spend over 7 hours a day on average consuming some form of digital media.  That is a lot of stuff to consume.

This amount of media consumption is unlikely to diminish any time soon with the use of smartphones and tablets becoming more common, and networks offering more bandwidth at faster speeds.

Young people growing up today aren’t merely saturated by media they are drowning in it.  So immersed are they in the sea of digital media most are unaware of its impact and effects.

More than ever before teenagers need adults who will teach them how to interpret and filter the endless messages and images they receive everyday.

So where do you begin?

Media Literacy is the term used to describe competencies that enable people to evaluate, process, and respond to the messages conveyed by the vast array of modern media.

As you might imagine Media Literacy is no small subject. But never fear there is a way to help your teen think more about what it is they watch, read and listen to, that doesn’t require years of study.

Here are 5 simple questions you can ask your teen today that will get them thinking in helpful ways about their cultural diet.  Who knows you might even end up in a meaningful conversation about ideas and beliefs….maybe!

1. Who created the media and why?

Realizing that someone constructs all forms of media for a purpose is fundamental to making sense of media.  Learning to ask who made, wrote, arranged, performed, and pieced together the product being viewed is as basic as it is important.

Media, like all communication, is constructed for at least one of 3 reasons; to inform, to persuade, to entertain.  When it comes to mass media communication underlying those reasons is the greater purposes of profit or power.

Teaching teens to consider who it is that has created what they are watching or listening to and what their motives might be for creating it sets the critical processes in train.

2. What techniques do they use to convey their message?

Being able to deconstruct the devices and techniques being employed by a particular piece of entertainment empowers young people as to be informed consumers.  Learning to be conscious of the way messages are conveyed lessens the chances of young people being unwittingly manipulated or persuaded by cultural forces.

3. What values, lifestyles, points of view are reflected?

All constructed messages carry value statements. They might be implied or they could be expressed explicitly.  Being able to identify and acknowledge the values and assumptions within a piece of media enable the consumer to be discerning in their engagement with it.

For teenagers this means learning the ability to take the bits they might like and enjoy while also being able to acknowledge and filter out the values and suggestions they are uncomfortable with.

4. How might different people interpret this message?

This is a great question for teenagers as it forces them to consider things from another person’s point of view.  Teens don’t naturally do this, particularly younger teens.

Helping teenagers to think about how another person in a different situation might perceive something opens their minds up to possible new meanings and interpretations.  This type of thinking opens them up to seeing some of the subtle, and often unhelpful, biases or messages that present.

5. What do they want people to think, feel or do?

When your teen to answers this question get them to start with how they respond to the piece. What are their thoughts and feelings?  Do they think their response is what the creators of the media were hoping for?

It is interesting to find out what teenagers perceive to be the motives of the creators when discussing this question.  I think you can learn a lot about how your teenager perceives the world and culture if you can get them talking about what they think is ultimate goal of a creative work.

Give it a go

So there you have it, 5 questions to form the outline of a conversation you can have with your teenager. Next time you listen to some of their music, or hear them talk about a movie or TV show, why not start a conversation with something like “Who sings that song?” or “Who is in that show?”  (question 1) and take things from there.

Let us know how you go in the comments section below. Feel free to add to the 5 questions above with some other questions you have found helpful.

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  • MattJacobs

    This is really great, Chris.

    It’s remarkable how much advertising communicates messages about what it means to be human, what it means to be male and female, what it means to be young. And quite disturbing to think that even a little thing like advertising jeans becomes a cultural text that informs and shapes a young persons worldview. 

    I think your idea is good – help teenagers to read – and thereby distance themselves at least one step – from any given cultural text (ad, song, billboard, whatever), to assess and then either accept or reject its message.

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