To teach media and the challenge of their meaningful use

Waltraud Gebhardt 

In 1990, a study was made of the preferred leisure activities of children of six to thirteen years of age. 3629 children answered the question, "Which activity do you enjoy most?", of whom 46 % said they most enjoyed playing alone or with others and 34% said they most enjoyed watching television. To the question, “How often do you do these things?”, 82% said they watched television every day or nearly every day and 95% said they watched it at least once a week (data from Klingler, W. / Windgasse, T. Media Perspektiven 1/94:2-13). A later study by Klinger and Schöneberg (1994) of ownership and amount of use of media showed that the proportion of users of visual media had again grown and those media receivers, especially television, had become part of everyday life. People watch television around the clock.Round-the-clock broadcasting by independent companies such as Tele5, RTLPlus, SAT1, PRO7 through satellite and cable television and through the use of video recorders makes this possible. Evening time is seen as the time of most concentrated viewing. Between 5 pm and 8 pm is seen as ‘Primetime’.

Older research

In 1982, Neil Postman, Professor of Media Ecology at New York University, wrote The Disappearance of Childhood, an analysis of the impact of electronic media. This analysis stimulated discussion of the effects of media.

According to Postman, the media contribute to the disappearance of childhood. The idea of childhood as a phase of life between the ages of seven and seventeen approximately has actually been with us for less than 400 years. It is generally considered to be an invention of the Renaissance period. Following the invention of printing by Gutenberg, adults had for the first time the possibility of exclusive knowledge. The ability to read separated adults from children, it gave the possibility of access to secrets which marked the difference between adulthood and childhood. In the age of television, which cannot keep secrets because it is a ‘medium of unrestricted revelation’, children know much more about the adult world than ever before and this has brought about an adjustment of the two phases of life. Formerly ‘ignorant’ children are now ‘child-adults’. A ‘child-adult’ is a human being for whom emotional and intellectual abilities do not progressively unfold because he knows too much too early in life.

Postman is critical of the combination of commerce, ideology and lack of thought that, through the media, imposes upon children and young people the ideas- and feelings-world of adults. The influence of this adult ideas- and feelings-world leads to children and young people being in the end capable only of adult desires. ‘Unremittingly, television reveals and trivialises everything that was once private and prevented feelings of shame’ (Postman 1988:180). Feelings of shame, forms of politeness and control of self disappear under the influence of the media.

Postman speaks in this connection of the fact that a whole societies can develop into a ‘Technopolis’. The resultant supremacy of technology and media in the long run leads not to developing a well-informed and judicious population, but rather it incapacitates human beings and promotes the emergence of prejudices. Times spent on television or video recordings, video games, computer games or Walkman are times of the passive reception of a reality which has already been worked on by others. This falsified "second-hand" reality can become a negative influence.

Following Katz and Foulkes, older research could be characterized as focussing on "What do the media do to the people?“ (1962:378) arising partly within the thought-world of a so called Behaviorism. According to a behavioral monocausal ‘S-R Model’ (known as well as “Black-Box model” or “hyperdermic needle-, bullet-, or transmission belt-theory”), external stimuli determine human response, actions and attitudes. The responsibility for the effects of information on the receiver side of that information is one-sidedly attributed to the supplier of the information. The media were analysed under an aspect of manipulation and warnings of the effect of the media on children were the outcome of this older research.

In more recent literature a changed evaluation of media and their use has taken place.

More recent research

In place of a one-sided disapproval, a more differentiated approach has now come under active consideration. Individual problem situations, such as media careers move forward, media biographies are investigated and new insights into the reactions of children to media are the result.

The recipient of the media is regarded as being capable of responsibly processing  information. He/she can recognise the relevance of contents presented and draw his/her own conclusions from it. Through their communicative abilities, human beings can come to their own conclusions, understand ‘creatively’, ‘creatively misunderstand’ or reject information. ‘The senders do not bear exclusive responsibility for the interpretations of the receiver, but the receiver him/herself, it is at least the case that both have responsibility" (Frey/Kemper/Frenz 1996:36). Human beings must develop within themselves the conditions for an adequate understanding of the media. Lewin (cited in: Merten, 1994:298) illustrates this more recent approach with the formula  "B(ehavior)=f(P(erson)), E(nvironment)".

While some families and their children deal ably and with greater awareness with what the media offer, other children and their families are not as capable of doing so. The different ways of handling the media are, among other things, dependent on the wider social framework in which children live. ‘Children who are socially integrated and go to school happily, devote themselves to a significantly greater degree to more exacting activities, e.g. the production of diagrams and designs with the computer, whereas children who are not so use the computer primarily for playing’ (Lange 1996:256).

Bonfadelli distinguishes the effects of the media depend on the abilities of the users and shows what the evidence of considerable difference is (from Bonfadelli 1989:99):

Possible positive effects with good media skills:

Possible negative effects with poor media skills:

Varied program use

More uniform use, i.e. more ‘sameness’

Selective and individualised use

More consumption of entertainment, problems of excessive consumption.

More information and learning through the media

Increasing gaps in knowledge, nothing new learned because use is limited to entertainment

Improved orientation to society

World at second-hand: a world of appearances

New skills leading to personal development and relationships are acquired

Decline of literacy (one reads little)

Increased social interaction, such as participation and avoidance of isolation, . ie. Social integration through increased knowledge and greater skill

Media used as a substitute for conversation lead to isolation and deepen social contrasts

Motivation to activity and self-realization

Passivity, dependence, emotional stress

As the newer research attributes responsibility for the effects of the media not only to the producer, but sees it as also lying with the recipients and/or their parents, parents and educators are challenged to  offer guidance, exercise control and ensure adequate handling of the media.

Towards the practice of media education and the development of media literacy

In a society which experiences continued technological and cultural revolutions, it is absolutely necessary that one learns to make favourable use of the flood of new media. For politicians, equality in the use of the new media becomes the most important 21st century social question (e.g. Gerhard Schröder reported by Markus Pilzweger, dpa 08.03.2002). Schröder said that the ability to synchronise the decoding of texts, sounds and images will substantially decide the future of the whole society.

If a wide social class is not successfully encouraged to use the media constructively, a two-class society will emerge, with a growing knowledge gap between ‘good media-users` and ‘poor media-users.’ In this way, certain social classes could be in danger to be disadvantaged.

Whatever effects one attributes to the media, there remains an indisputable necessity for guidance and the promotion of understanding of the media’s picture language. Since handling media is dependent, on the one hand, on personality factors and, on the other hand, also on family factors, a meaningful pedagogy in the use of the media therefore requires more than a bare introduction to the media themselves. The role of the social context of the child must also be taken into account.

The question for educational action is expanded to ‘What do children do with media?’ not only ‘What do media do to children?’.

The term ‘media literacy’ comprises the ability to autonomously use both new and traditional media efficiently. For a discerning use it is necessary to develop an understanding of the subjectivity of media, critical reasoning and interpretation skills, certain knowledge of their beneficial function and an overview of the various choices media offer. As Hillebrand writes ‘For a  qualified use and imaginative advancement of media, media education and media criticism, training in self-determination, knowledge of a point of reference and the skill of reflectively  handling of media is necessary ’ (Lange/Hillebrand 1996:41).

The European Centre for Media Literacy (ECML) identified five essential elements of media literacy. First of all, self-determination and self-orientation skills are necessary. For this, the user needs background knowledge and insights into the function, production and range of programmes so that he can select and decide which information is meaningful. This enables him to make content conscious decisions regarding a product or application. The ability to form a reflective evaluation of the media and their contents according to normative, functional and emotional criteria is a further element. A Christian family, who deliberately and attractively makes standards  faithful to a biblical view of human nature and to the love of all fellow humans the basis of their evaluation, will thereby provide a positive example of a constructively critical view.

Another important skill is competence in the organisation of learning and of creativity so that users recognise and make use of their options to influence the media i.e., they involve themselves actively in media culture and what is on offer there.

Examples of German Christian provision of active intervention include amongst others: on-line counseling  for children (here, among other things, the co-operation of children is guaranteed). There is information on TV broadcasts and videos for children at or telephone 02264/7045 or write to P.O. Box 11 29, 51703 Marienheide. Information from a Christian perspective or Christian, (a Christian question and answer forum – FAQ – on Christian themes),

In view of changing variables of communicator, message and recipient  media education, like sex education, can in no wise be left exclusively to the national educational system. Instead Christians they should actively and communicatively learn with their children the critical handling of the media, how to take creative ownership of the good and consistently reject being influenced by morally doubtful material.

Literature list:

Klinger, W / Schönenberg, K. „Kinder und Medien – Eine alltägliche Beziehung“ Diskurs, 4, 1994.

Klingler, W. / Windgasse, Th. “Was Kinder sehen. Eine Analyse der Fernsehnutzung von 6- bis 13jährigen” In: Media Perspektiven 1/94.

Postman, N. „The Disappearance of Childhood” Delacorte Press, New York, 1982.

Postman, N. „Die Verweigerung der Hörigkeit“ S.Fischer, 1988.

Lange, A. „Kindsein heute: theoretische Konzepte und Befunde der sozialwissenschaftlichen Kindheitsforschung sowie eine Explorationsuntersuchung zum Kinderalltag in einer bodenseenahen Gemeinde“ Hartung – Gorre - Verlag Konstanz, 1996.

Katz, E. / Foulkes, D. „On the use of the mass media as, escape’: Clarification of a concept” In: Public Opinion Quarterly 3/1962.

Pilzweger, M. dpa 08.03.2002 Quelle:

Bonfadelli, H. „Vom Aufwachsen in einer elektronischen Umwelt“ Bundesministerium für Jugend, Familien, Frauen und Gesundheit (Hrsg.):40 Jahre Bundesrepublik Deutschland. Zur Zukunft von Familien und Kindheit, DJI, München, 1989.

Lange, P. /Hillebrand, A. „Medienkompetenz- die neue Herausforderung der Informationsgesellschaft“ in: Spektrum der Wissenschaft, August 1996.

Merten, K./ Schmidt, S.J./ Weischenberg, S. (Hrsg.): Die Wirklichkeit der Medien. Eine Einführung in die Kommunikationswissenschaft. Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1994.

© Waltraud Gebhardt (revised 2003)