Political Issues and Children

Politics can be confusing and frustrating enough for adults, and just imagine what that is like for a child who does not understand the issues or campaign methods. It is important to educate children about how to interpret, analyze and evaluate such messages. This post sets out to help parents and teachers explain political media to their children.
 
Incidental learning takes place when mediated messages teach a lesson that the observer did not consciously set out to learn. The 2010 political season has seen large volumes of negative ads, focused on individuals rather than issues. Name calling ads have been used by all parties and on all levels of campaigns. In our media saturated world, children’s views and understanding of politics may be particularly affected by these messages.  They are learning things about politics that neither they, nor we (their parents and teachers) want them to learn.
 
Children should be aware of the different tactics and techniques politicians may use in their campaigns and advertisements.  The Media Awareness Network   describes some of these tactics.  They say that  put-downs (insulting comments aimed at an opponent), weasel words (promising words with lack of details), and fear (the creation of  fears within voters for an opponent) are a few techniques that spark confusion in children.
 
Media literacy dictates that we teach these children how to evaluate such messages, so that they understand the underlying issues and form opinions based on the issues rather than the initial responses that they might have or feel when viewing an ad.
 
Let’s start with an actual ad from this political season.

When one candidate compares another candidate to dog poo, the implications for small children can be confusing.   Is the other candidate really like dog poo?   Why are they name calling?  Does this occur in all elections?    Is it ok to call other people names when you are campaigning?

Both at home and within the classroom, discussing the commercial is a stepping off point.  A simple, “How did that make you feel?” question is a good starter.  After that, adults can discuss what the advertisement really meant.    In a 2006 article for commonsensemedia.org, author Liz Pearle offers tips for a conversation about negative political ads with a young child. 

At some point in any discussion about political advertisements, an explanation of elections may be helpful. Young children may know that there is an election, but may not know what an election is.   According to the contributors at Professor’s House website, the best way to teach young children about politics is to make it personal for them.  However, this can be problematic when children experience negative advertisements that feature a cute puppy and a bag of dog poo such as in the Joe Sestak ad.   It is important to remind children that the aggressive nature of such ads is a problem that many grown ups recognize.   Reassurance that adults recognize the problem can aid in the discussion.

It is important to note the consequences that may arise when children are kept in the dark regarding the analysis and influence of media messages; specifically political media.  Albert Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory of Mass Communication tells us that we gain an understanding and new behaviors from personal and vicarious messages (2001). Seeing authority figures name-calling and bashing their opponent may lead children to believe name-calling is an acceptable behavior. Because politicians get away with it punishment-free, children may begin to add name calling to their behaviors. Should children understand the purpose of the political ad, they will understand that name calling is a tactic.

Furthermore, children may get the impression that the winner of the election is chosen based on personal characteristics rather than the issues at hand. Children need to be made aware that political campaigns are centered around issues, and that voters should vote on these issues … that campaigns and voting should not be centered around sensationalism.

The Learning Through Repetition Theory dictates that in order for children to fully comprehend and evaluate mediated messages — including political ads — they must be taught and re-taught the concept.   Thus, it behooves both parents and teachers alike to discuss a variety of ads with children so that they begin to focus on the issues behind the messages.  By so doing, a child’s understanding will slowly come into deeper focus and the messages being relayed to them will teach lessons that are less incidental and more informed.

Contributors to this post include se1776, es1595 and bk8050

Bandura, A. (2001). Social Cognitive Theory of Mass Communication. Media Psychology, 3(3), 265-299.

Pearle, Liz (2006).  Talking to Kids About Negative Political Ads.  CommonSense Media.  Accessed 8 Nov 2010 at http://www.commonsensemedia.org/talking-kids-about-negative-political-ads.

“Political Advertising Techniques”(2010).  Media Awareness Network.  Accessed 8 Nov 2010 at http://www.media-awareness.ca/english/resources/educational/handouts/advertising_marketing/political_advertising_techniques.cfm.

“Teaching Children About Politics”.  Professor’s house.  Accessed 8 Nov 2010 at http://www.professorshouse.com/family/children/children-article.aspx?id=3912&LangType=1033&terms=politics%20and%20young%20children.

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This entry was posted in At Home, Elementary, Without Media Literacy. Bookmark the permalink.

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