Making the Media Work for You: Action Ideas for Families


This article originally appeared in Issue# 35

Ever think about what happens at your house when the phone rings?

You put down the bank statements and the automatic calculator while you grope wildly for the remote control that will turn down the sound on the VCR movie you're watching. Of course it's hidden along with the DVD control under the pile of magazines you were catching up on earlier during breaks in the action.

In the meantime, your husband hesitates as he listens to see if someone is going to get there first. He's really doesn't want to leave the Internet site giving the latest sports scores and stock quotations.

The 12-year-old didn't hear the phone. He's got his CD player earphones on and is dancing madly to a beat that only he can hear.

The l6-year-old hasn't answered an ordinary phone in months. The distinctive ring on her cell phone is the only sound that has meaning. Besides, she's absorbed in the latest MTV offerings being displayed on the upstairs cable hookup.

The eight-year-old isn't too eager to spring for it, either. She's concentrating on the video game she got for her birthday.

"Oh well, the answering machine will get it, you say as you relax amid the lapful of remote control devices and piles of papers. But you didn't reckon on the enthusiasm of the three-year-old. He's been able to turn the television on and off and insert a video cassette in the VCR for almost a year, but the telephone is still a challenge. Of course his piping, immature voice may be a little soft for the caller to hear. But he knows how to say, "Mommy, it's for you."

As the foregoing fictional example illustrates, it's not easy to keep tabs on media usage in a modern household. Except for the telephone, TV and radio, most of the communication devices mentioned were not in common use even 10 years ago. These days they're so widespread that a media survey could almost be taken in your living room. And a media critic who wants to know what program the children are watching could be justly answered "Which child?"

One thing hasn't changed, however. From MTV to talk-radio, video cassettes to health magazines, media are in the business of making money. And the way they do it is by selling you -- your family's needs, desires and consumption habits are directly and indirectly of great value to the companies and services marketing everything from soap and groceries to Gobots and off road vehicles. And from six to 60, it's all too easy to fall into the trap of changing your values and lifestyle and those of your family members to match what you see and hear on television/radio/cable.

If you have thought about this situation before, you've taken the first step towards taking control of your media life. Experts say this can have a powerful effect. Although the content of modern media could certainly be improved, few critics deny its positive potential. But eliciting this potential requires an active rather than a passive approach to media usage.

Of course, that was always true of television, too. But with a plethora of media choices to make daily, individual family selections are more and more difficult to monitor. Media consumers of all ages need to be taught to balance their media in the same way that they need to learn about a balanced food diet.

The following sections provide introductory discussion ideas and projects to help not only families and children but all of us became more aware of the impact of media in our lives. Use the questions with groups of all ages. Encourage families to have their own conversations and engage in some of the projects. Schedule a "Media Awareness Month" in your school, church/temple or community center and organize a variety of activities, including youth programs or guest speakers.

One important point: the key to intelligent media consumption is a critical stance as opposed to unthinking absorption. Encourage the ability to step back and take a keen look at the techniques used to make media appealing. Remember, since almost everyone, after years of viewing and listening, is a media expert, everyone also has the potential to become an aware media critic!


The word begins with "A," but it's also a good place to start because of advertising's key role in determining the content of a variety of media.

Ads and commercials are very carefully planned to appeal to the target audience of a particular radio or television program. Ads in magazines and newspapers are also strategically placed - the better to entice you to stop and read.

Ideas to Talk About:

  • Have you ever seen/heard a commercial like this before?
  • Whom do you think it's designed to appeal to? Why?
  • How is the same product advertised on television? radio? in magazines? billboards?
  • Would you have wanted this product if you had not seen or heard an advertisement? If not, why do you want it now?

For Kids:

  • Does the toy or product really look like that in real life?
  • Is the toy or product intended for boys or girls? Why or why not?
  • Do you see any extra props that you wouldn't expect to get if you bought it? If so, do you still want it?
  • Is buying the toy or device only the first stage? What other things will you want to buy later? Will they be worthwhile?


  • Keep track of the products your family buys for a week. Mow many are items or brands you found out about through commercials?
  • Write and act out a commercial for a product you haven't seen advertised. What decisions do you have to make?


Experts are still quarreling about whether computer literacy means learning about a computer (how it works, and how to program it) or only about how to use the specific programs that fit your needs.

In the meantime, most families purchasing a computer face some major decisions about their joint and individual computer goals and how to satisfy them.

Ideas to Talk About:

  • Does everyone in the family know how to use the computer and features like e-mail, connecting to the Internet, etc.?
  • Is scheduling of computer time a problem? Who else could be using it and for what? Does it really save time and energy or consume time/attention that should be given to other activities?
  • Is anyone "addicted" to the computer? Is anyone left out?

For Kids:

  • Do the boys and girls you know use computers equally? If not, why do you think this is?
  • How do you think you'll be using a computer when you get older?


  • Visit a computer store with the whole family. Does everyone understand what's going on?
  • Count and describe the 'smart appliances' you have in your life (e.g., microwave ovens or car ignition systems).

CD Players

Most of us think of CDs as merely a kind of portable recording, but actually their influence has been profound. Whether played on CD players in an entertainment system or a pocket-size player with earphones, the words and music of your choice can follow you anywhere — to work or school, exercising, shopping, or walking the dog.

Ideas to Talk About:

  • Who decides what CDs to buy? Are they a private collection or do you share?
  • In addition to music, are there other experiences you can have through CDs (poetry, talking books, learning languages)?
  • When your family travels together in the car, how do you decide what to listen to? Are there better ways to decide?


  • Visit a large local bookstore or the public library to look for non-music CDs or tapes. Select a CD on some previously unexplored area for every member of the family.


If your family is like most, the radio is on whenever the television is not. And very likely, someone has it on almost all the time. But not everyone listens to the same station. And with good reason. Radio programming is very carefully planned to appeal to listeners of specific ages and income levels. Even the sex of the typical listener is a factor.

Ideas to Talk About:

  • How many radios do you or your family own? Who uses them most of the time, and where?
  • Is your car radio on preset buttons or do you select stations randomly? What influences your choice of favorite stations? Do you ever drive without listening to the radio?

For Kids:

  • Would you listen to the radio if nobody else you knew did? How often do you talk about songs or news items with friends or schoolmates?
  • How many hours a day do you spend with the radio on?
  • What are your favorite songs? Are they big bits? Do you like the same kinds of songs you did a year ago? Two years ago? What's the difference?


  • Make a list of every family member's favorite radio station. Compare lists. Do they make sense in terms of the stations' intended audiences? Any surprises?
  • Don't play the radio for three or four days. Did you miss it? Why?


Media theorist Marshall Mccluhan called television "chewing gum for the eyes." But few would disagree that some of the most memorable moments of the last 35 years have been spent in its company.

Today's shows are as maligned as ever — but more than a few golden moments from its first decades are being plumbed for inner meaning and savored as art — developments that might have surprised some of their creators.

Ideas to Talk About?

  • How many TV sets do you own and who watches them? Are there any shows you watch as a family?
  • How many hours a day are your set(s) on? Does a set ever 'run on empty" (with no one watching)? If so, why?
  • Are there any times when television is not allowed (dinner hours, study time, family conferences)? Would you like to create more?

For Kids:

  • Do you like to watch the same shows as your parents? If not, what are some of the differences? Do family members ever fight over what shows to watch? Who decides?
  • Do you enjoy shows with lots of action? Or are some of them just too much? Do you think most shows portray life the way it really is?
  • Have you ever made a video yourself? What did you learn about how television shows are created?


  • Over a period of a week or two watch everyone's "most favorite" and "least favorite" shows and discuss them.
  • Put the whole family on a TV/video diet for a week. Decide in advance what you're going to watch and when. When the week is over, discuss what you learned -- about television? about your family? about yourself?
  • Make a family video of a an upcoming event, like a birthday. Plan how you will tell the story -- the various scenes, different kinds of "shots," what will be said and who will say it. Write up your plan and try to follow it in creating your production.
  • Attend a live event (a play, a concert, a sports activity) that's similar to something you could see on television. How would television have made it different?


Will print disappear with the advent of new media? Its demise is often predicted. At the same time, other commentators point out that proper use of computers and other technology requires literacy and the creating thinking skills that go with it.

What does seem clear is the changing nature of printed material. Magazines and newspapers designed to respond to a mass market are under increasing pressure, while specialized publications on everything from gourmet dieting to hang gliding proliferate. Even the newsletter industry is booming.

Some publications (Family Computing, Home Video) are designed to ease users into the Media Age while alternative news publications expand the range of available viewpoints beyond the horizons of local papers and consumer magazines.

Ideas to Talk About,

  • List the magazines, newsletters and newspapers that come into your home. Do they represent your current interests and needs? Should you discontinue some of them? Add new ones?
  • Does your family make good use of your local public library? How could you use it better?

For Kids:

  • Do you ever read books and newspapers intended for adults? Are they hard to understand? What do you like about them?
  • Do you listen to the radio or watch TV while you read? Does one media interfere with the other? Why or why not?


  • Take time to browse at a local newsstand. Are there titles you have not seen before? Purchase one new publication that interests you.
  • Visit your library and make sure every family member old enough has a library card. Ask the librarian for a library tour including the CD, video and periodical collections.
  • Compare two or three editions of magazines with varying political opinions (e.g., New Republic, National Review, Washington Monthly, Mother Jones). Can you spot differences in the way they treat various issues?
Author Bio: 

Rosalind Silver, who started as a volunteer writer for Media&Values magazine in 1983, was named editor in 1989 and continued on staff until the magazine ceased publication in 1993. She holds an MA in Journalism from the University of Southern California. She is a copy editor on the Press Telegram, Long Beach, California.