Going Beyond the Screen

During Screen-Free Week, help your pupils develop media literacy through analysis of their favorite shows.

By Erin Bailey

Students gathered around a computer

In 2013, Screen-Free Week is scheduled for April 29th - May 5th. The goal of this week is for children (and adults) to replace screen time with more active, leisure-time pursuits. According to the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, American families spend five to six hours watching television each day, but only engage in meaningful conversation for thirty-five minutes per day. Obviously, this denies children opportunities to develop interpersonal skills. Likewise, it reduces participation in any number of activities that boost school performance and increase healthy habits. Television also exposes children to the marketing and violence that permeate American media.

Every family must decide for itself how much TV is too much and what program content is appropriate; but as teachers, we can educate our students about how to be savvy consumers of all media forms. Instead of simply telling children to turn off the electronics, seize the opportunity to help them understand the messages being presented as well as the effects of those messages. The ideas below go well-beyond the standard lesson about bandwagon, testimonial, and glittering generalities. They will focus your secondary scholars on how the media changes our perception of ourselves, others, and societal issues.

If you are in need of research resources, these quality websites are a good start:

Negative News Portrayal

Prior to class, record the opening stories on the nightly news for one week. Assign your class the task of selecting a news article with an uplifting message. These should be in the vein of: Girl Scouts donate cookie money to the homeless shelter; rescued dog spreads smiles at a nursing home. After sharing the feel-good articles, have your class answer these questions:

  • Right now, I feel (good/bad) about living in the United States.
  • In general, people (do the right thing/do not do the right thing) when faced with a choice.
  • I feel (adjective) about my immediate future.

On another day, repeat the process after showing students the previously recorded television news stories. Discuss the possible reasons that answers may have changed from day to day. Do negative news stories affect how we perceive society? If so, how? Why do news programs typically start off with a dramatically negative story?

Inaccurate Societal Portrayal

Take a survey of your students’ most commonly watched shows. From the top six, assign them to watch three or four of the shows in one week. You could also record these shows and watch them in class. Before viewing, learners should answer these questions:

  • What issues are important to you and your friends right now?
  • What issues are important to your family right now?
  • What issues are important to society right now?
  • How many people with mental or physical disabilities do you know or see on a regular basis?

As participants view the selected programs, have them keep track of the following:

  • What issue or problem are the characters facing?
  • Are the characters’ responses to these problems realistic? Why or why not? Give these a 1,2,3, ranking.
  • How do the characters dress? How does this compare to how you and your friends dress?
  • What socioeconomic group(s) do the characters occupy? Is this your socioeconomic group?
  • What cultural/racial group(s) do the characters represent? Is this your cultural/racial group?
  • How many people with mental or physical disabilities are represented?

With your class, discuss the findings. What issues or themes are most commonly discussed? What demographic of the population is most commonly represented? Compare the demographic results to your community or school. Make a large graph to post in the school entry.

Unhealthy Habit Portrayal

The American Psychological Association has found a strong correlation between increased exposure to advertising for non-nutritious foods and rates of childhood obesity. To illustrate how many times children are exposed to commercials for non-nutritious foods, try this activity in which pupils in lower grades can also participate.

As a group, view several episodes of morning cartoons aimed at young audiences; try Disney Junior or Nickelodeon Junior. Have children keep track of the number of ads for fast food restaurants, sugary cereal, and snack foods. For homework, ask them to search their pantries for any of these items and make a list. Ask participants to estimate the number of visits they have made in the last month to one of the advertising restaurants. For privacy, keep the results anonymous.

How do the results compare? Make graphs to show the number of commercials for a particular cereal or snack food and the number of households having that item. For additional activities to develop media literacy, your class can visit the PBS "Don't Buy It" website.

Americans view nearly two thousand hours of television per year. Help your class understand how this habit may negatively impact their health by spending a few class periods analyzing the messages being sent.

Consider These Lessons from Lesson Planet:

Nutrition and the Media: Cereal Box Consumerism

Participants in grades 2-5 explore advertising tricks after reading Arthur and the Cereal Crunch Contest by Marc Brown. They investigate how color, slogans, and prizes influence purchases and then design their own cereal box.

Media Literacy: TV - What You Don't See!

This lesson for secondary students uses the PBS series In the Mix. While there is a fee to watch the videos associated with it, your library may already own them.  The video has learners view music videos from various genres and discuss the images that are presented and the reason for including those images. Many other activities are also provided.

Be Screen-Free for a Week

This article offers several more ideas about implementing Screen-Free Week. Research and resources are included, as well as lesson plans to help your class become screen free, if only for a week.