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Pressing Issues

We Need to Raise a Generation of Media Literate Kids

‘I don't think that raising media literate kids is going to somehow save democracy. But I do believe that a generation which is able to see truth will be better advocates, organizers, and consumers.’

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I was sitting in my office on the afternoon the video footage showing the Proud Boys marching through my city popped up in my newsfeed. The rage, the kind so familiar since President Donald Trump was elected, escalated as I watched the group’s puffed-up antagonism, the police arresting counter-protestors as the Proud Boys chanted, “Blue Lives Matter! Blue Lives Matter!” And finally, police knocking the journalist who was filming to the ground, arresting him as he yelled, “I’m media!” I got up and walked across the hall to my partner’s office. “Look at what’s happening, this is atrocious,” I said. My daughter, who is nine, walked in, too, concerned and curious about what was going on.

Since at-home school resumed, I’ve been thinking about ways to intentionally weave lessons in media literacy into my youngest child’s learning. I looked between her and my partner and considered the content and the violence it showed. We had kept our knowledge about the planned Proud Boys demonstration quiet in the days leading up to their arrival. We tucked away the paper our neighbor dropped off with information about how we could work together to keep ourselves safe. We whispered conversations in bed about whether we should take our Pride flag down for the weekend, as some of our friends had chosen to do.

Even with my desire to help my kids understand media messages, it’s tricky in Trump’s America to know which media is valuable to show kids and which is too much; which information can be used as teaching moments, and what might leave my youngest feeling too vulnerable and unsafe. I’m cognizant of my privilege as a white parent; aware that Black parents have evaluated and navigated these kinds of difficult conversations since well before Trump.

For me, the situation with the Proud Boys captured so much of our current reality and things I want my child to understand – namely how the group’s predictable tactics are abusive and how they connect with the greater message and endorsements from the president. As importantly, I wanted to explain the problems with how the media consistently whittles down Trump-sanctioned violence to headlines that summarize it as “clashes” between protestors and counter-protestors.

So, I showed her the footage. My daughter was understandably horrified. “What is their problem!? Why are they doing that? They’re bad people.” was the gist of her comments. To her last assertion, I simply agreed. I explained that the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies the Proud Boys as a hate group and that they were known for their disdain for the LGBTQ community and the Black Lives Matter movement. I told her how they like to antagonize people by yelling things that dehumanize them until their targets become enraged; how their verbal assaults and intimidation instigate violence; how they use their words to punch people until someone physically punches back and they can then claim to be the victim.

It turns out there’s not a lot of nuance in this for kids. My child could understand immediately that hate-based rhetoric which elevates white supremacy is inherently violent. Kids know that “words will never hurt me” is bullshit. Kids, especially those on the margins, are intimately familiar with the sting of words hurled at them in their neighborhoods, at school, and online.

But, for many adults in this country, steeped in hyper-partisanship and propagandized by far-right media, the obvious gets muddied, even used as a battering ram. When white supremacists wreaked havoc on Charlottesville, Virginia, Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides,” furthering the idea that those standing up against fascism and those touting Naziism are on the same spectrum. This is the backdrop under which media headlines constantly whittle down violence instigated by Trump supporters as “clashes.” It’s obtuse and doesn’t adequately describe the reality of what the violence truly is: domestic terrorism.

Media literacy teaching moments since Trump has come into office are endless. I’ve used State of the Union addresses as opportunities to talk to my kids about how to identify state-sanctioned propaganda, and I use the plethora of examples of both-sides-ism reporting to explain the harm that comes from emphasizing “balance” even as fascism looms, even as people are killed, even as armed Trump supporters caravan by the hundreds down streets, shooting onlookers with paintballs.

While a portion of the adult population refuses to see the connection, our kids can clearly see how militants holding an effigy of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer hanging from a noose and egged on by Trump tweeting “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” can lead to a plot for her kidnap and murder. And it doesn’t take a linguistics class to know that “Proud Boys: Stand back and stand by” implies await my orders.

Media literacy does more than help my kids understand a political landscape. It also helps them understand how these warped ideologies embed into people’s minds. It doesn’t excuse the people in their lives who are prioritizing Trump and everything he stands for over our own family, but it does offer context. It helps them to see how siloed information is, how actually unreachable a person is who is entrenched in conspiracy theories and lies masquerading as facts.

With some family members caught up in the cult of Trump, my kids and I talk about how the supposed values of Trump supporters we know measure up with their support of him. Like, how does “pro life” apply to babies in cages, or taking away health care, or mocking health recommendations and holding super spreader events during a pandemic? And how does one disavow racism and simultaneously dismiss Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacy? How does respect for the military align with Trump’s slander of those who’ve served? And how can anyone call themselves a Trump-voting patriot when Trump stomps all over democracy?

The answer to all of it is that none of it goes together. None of it makes logical sense. At the end of the day, it’s about maintaining GOP power and control at all costs – even at the cost of democracy. And that’s the sad reality of media’s influence on people. If the only information you pump into your brain every day is Fox News and your crazy uncle’s conspiracy theory rants on Facebook, you’re more likely to buy into the lie that legitimate news publications and channels are all “fake news” and there is such a thing as “alternative facts.”

If my teen tells me something he read online or saw on TikTok, he knows my follow up question: What was the source? It sometimes results in eye-rolls, yes, but I’m desperate for my kids to walk into adulthood with an ability to not only parse apart the context of messages but to be able to discern who is sharing the message and what influences, like money, clicks, readership, and political alliance might be behind those messages.

These conversations are obviously important as democracy crumbles, but how much more important are they when it’s stomped into the ground and lifeless? Clearly, I don’t have rose-colored glasses on. I don’t think that raising media literate kids is going to somehow save democracy. But I do believe that a generation which is able to see truth—to know truth exists, to know there aren’t variations of truth—will be more equipped to protect their brains from mind-numbing propaganda and will be better advocates and organizers and consumers of media.

The media played a role in platforming Trump in 2016, and it directly led to his popularity and ultimately helped him win. I want my kids to be able to see that calling the press “fake news” and “the enemy of the people” is out of fascism’s playbook. And I want them to understand how difficult it is for journalists to hold those in power accountable under circumstances like these. It’s what makes our role as critical readers and consumers of media so essential.

I’m proud of my oldest, who is now 18 and has been waiting for his moment to vote out Trump since that fateful election night in 2016. At only 14, he’d spent 50 hours over Get Out the Vote week canvassing and phone banking and holding signs on street corners. He understood then what was at stake, and his conviction has only grown. I hope that my current high schooler is on the same trajectory. I suppose, as a parent, that’s the point.

I can’t know exactly what I’m preparing my youngest for. I hope one day she’ll be able to cast a vote like her brother; that it will be a vote that truly counts. Maybe it’s more likely I’m preparing her to mobilize or to know how to protect herself (like during a pandemic, for instance, when competing messages say opposing things). Ultimately I’m preparing her to think critically —about the messages she consumes, about influences and agendas—and to find power in her ability to dig for the truth.

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