Shannon’s Adventures in Toddler Media Literacy

Spotify ads, I believe, are specifically designed to punish us for not paying for Spotify Premium. They are frequent, annoying, gratingly loud or repetitive, and often offensive to our intelligence.

But there is one particular Spotify ad that outdoes the rest. It is the most disturbing ad I have ever seen. A series of images and words flash on the screen, while a lady chants those words in a hypnotic voice. Now I’m sure this ad is trying to be ironically self-aware: “ha ha we know that you know that advertisers are basically brainwashing you, so…we’re just going for the full experience here.” But all I can think of is that it reminds me exactly of the brainwashing video torture from LOST.

I always hated this ad, but I started hating it even more when I heard my four-year-old Elanor happily chanting its words while skipping down the hallway one day.

As we were listening to songs a few days later, she dropped the book she was reading and ran into the kitchen when that commercial started. She chanted along with the lady: “Soft! Cozy! Sheep! Shoe!” The cutest little brainwash victim in the world.

I slammed the computer closed and got down in her face, deadly calm. “Elanor,” I said, knowing I needed to intervene but too disturbed to do so intelligently, “That commercial is bad. That is a bad commercial. I do not want to hear you saying words from that commercial again.”

The result? The next time the ad came on, Elanor ran into the kitchen, pointed accusingly at my laptop, and yelled, “NO! BAD COMMERCIAL! BAD BAD BAD!”

Hmmmm, I thought. Perhaps my approach should have been more nuanced. But another part of me was like, She’s not wrong.

After this exchange, I decided it was time for Toddler Media Literacy Training at my house.

Media literacy is simply learning to recognize the implications and assumptions behind the ads and entertainment we consume. It’s important because recognizing what something is trying to make you think gives you power to reject that thinking if it doesn’t line up with actual truth.

When I taught English 101 classes at our state university, our focus was analyzing rhetoric. We dissected ads to determine how companies sought to affect their audiences and whether it worked.

When we began, my students often couldn’t connect the content of the ads to the internal effects the ads had on them. One young man even claimed that ads had no effect on him. While I pray that’s true, buddy, the advertising industry is betting a trillion dollars that you’re wrong.

What I think this indicates is a lack of media literacy. Two of my favorite media literacy educators make the alarming claim that “while the U.S. is the No. 1 producer and exporter of media, it is also the only industrialized country in the world without some form of media literacy in public school curriculum.” As John Naisbitt says in his book Megatrends, “We are drowning in information but starved for knowledge.”

Even before learning about media literacy, I remember being alarmed at the Xbox 360’s slogan “It all revolves around you.” I mean, I have one. But what a dangerous and unfulfilling lie they’re telling just to sell us a machine. The system is now outdated, but messages like “You’re worth it” or “You deserve it” promote a sense of entitlement that lasts a lifetime. Other effects, like unrealistic beauty standards, an inflamed tendency to compare with others, and simple mind-numbing banality are also concerns to be aware of.

I knew all this on a high level, but when it entered my preschoolers’ life, I was flummoxed. Our preschool curriculum does not include media literacy training, as it is not something that can easily be converted to a glittery craft project.

After Elanor yelled at the brainwashing commercial, I tried another talk with her.

“Commercials aren’t bad,” I said. “They are just things people make for us to watch, like TV shows. But we need to be careful with them because the reason people make commercials is to try to get us to buy things. Sometimes they try to make us unhappy with what we have to make us want to buy those other things.”

Her eyes had glazed over by this point. “Oh,” she said.

All right! We’re really getting somewhere!

But that got the conversation started. She keeps asking about commercials (probably because my extremely strong response to the brainwashing shoes freaked her out). I keep telling her more about them.

Here’s what I’ve come up with so far in my lame attempts to introduce media literacy:

  1. Limit commercials.
  2. Warn about commercials. Commercials are not just fun things to watch, for me to roll my eyes at while my kids imbibe them. They are actively seeking to perform Nolan-style inception on my kids. I tell my kids that the commercial doesn’t care about them like Mr. Rogers cares about them: it only wants them to buy things.
  3. Talk to them about commercials. “Do you notice how the commercials are louder than the music?” I yell to my kids over the blaring Spotify ads (it is the only way they can hear me). I tell them that the commercials are louder to try to get our attention, make us listen. Just filling them in on little techniques like this, I hope, will empower them to recognize how commercials are trying to hack their brains.

So we’ve moved on from screaming at the laptop. Now when my girls see a commercial, they’ll say to each other, “Don’t look! It’s a commercial! It’s trying to make us buy something!”

Okay, so maybe more nuance is needed. But I’m actually pretty pleased. These girls know “Mommy doesn’t like commercials” (that is a quote from Elanor), and because Mommy is taking the time to teach them about some basic commercial techniques (like the volume), they will, for now, see Mommy as the expert on commercials. They know commercials are trying to make them want things they don’t need. Commercials are objects of scrutiny, not entertainment. I think that’s a decent basis for later being able to discuss these things further.

Ads are so powerful that they work on mature adults: otherwise, what are all these ads doing out there? And kids are even more impressionable. I, for one, still have the Baywatch Barbie commercial song from my youth completely memorized. “Dolphin’s so happy to be off the rocks… he talks!”

I don’t want my daughters watching commercials “blind.” I am poking the contact lenses of media literacy into their eyes: it isn’t entirely fun for any of us, but I’d rather them see what’s going on than not. If I focus on developing their character and minds all day, every day, but never address commercials, my silence might give them the impression that ads have no effect on them. And that is a dangerous place to be.

Do you have any ideas about teaching kids media literacy? How do you talk to kids about commercials? I’m all ears (or, since we’re typing, eyes).

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8 thoughts on “Shannon’s Adventures in Toddler Media Literacy

  1. This is spot on! But it also applies to all TV, music, and video content. There seems to be so much subliminal content in media — messages that highlight creation over the Creator, or disrespect toward parents and cruelty toward others, etc. Toddlers and school-aged children are not able to process all this information since they are literal in their thinking. Helping them interpret the content and purpose or motive is helpful at this stage. Well done!

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  2. A potentially helpful item to help you do #1. Limit commercials:

    One potential way to do this (I think) is by using a web browser on your computer and Ad Block plus. They have just about any browser you can imagine. Just go to https://adblockplus.org/ and install the add-on for your browser. From what I can tell, you have unlimited skips on the PC as well as you don’t hear any ads with it installed, but I’ve only listened to it a bit this morning to try to test it out and Spotify may have some odd “new account less ads at first” setting.

    One note: I have Spotify premium, so I tried this on a new free, not premium account in a web browser this morning. I noticed there are some features / items missing within the web browser, I think there may be a way to at least use the web browser to start “playing” from and then use the app (I know that even sounds convoluted to type much less put into practice, so it may be easier to deal with the commercials but hopefully it can work for you)

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      1. One note I forgot to mention that I just remembered when I saw your reply- when you go to Spotify.com it doesn’t make it easily available / obvious where to go to play music on the web even after logging in, so just go to play.spotify.com and there you should be able to login (if you aren’t already) and play music.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. What a great idea to start teaching your kids! I’m going to have to start bringing up the subject with my daughter and nieces. We can’t hear the word Menards without her singing their slogan. So many commercials easily get stuck in your head and pollute perception.

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    1. Thanks, SparksOfEmber! It’s definitely an in-the-works system. Some days they are overly fascinated by commercials, maybe in part BECAUSE I have such a strong reaction. As if they’re thinking, “What is this thing Mommy hates so much? Doesn’t seem that bad…” But I did feel rather gratified when my eldest child recently told a commercial, “No thank you, commercial. You don’t need our money. We shall keep it.” SCORE. So, it’s a far from perfect, but hope-filled endeavor.

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      1. I know we’ve definitely talked as a family about Best Buy commercials during Christmas. I don’t remember what they said anymore but the blatant selfishness they were promoting was over the top.

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