Empowering Youth Through Media

Steve Goodman
April 1, 2000

By the time the average American teenager graduates from high school, she will have spent more time consuming media outside of school — watching TV, playing video games, surfing the Web, and so forth — than time in school. According to the recently published Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation report, Kids and Media, average media consumption for children ages 8-13 exceeds eight hours a day.

What should we make of this? First, kids are learning all the time, from the text and the subtext of the various media they consume. The mass media environment is a pervasive form of extended-day learning.

Second, kids are learning to be loyal consumers of the mass media’s version of reality, but not producers of their own versions.

While youth in countries such as Canada, England, and Germany learn to critically analyze media and produce their own projects as a regular part of school, American kids rarely have that opportunity. The only media education that some 8 million American students get in school is the daily mandatory viewing (without interruption or critique) of Channel One or other commercial-driven TV programs.

However, a small number of successful youth programs give kids experience working in their communities as writers, reporters, editors, videographers and web page designers. Through programs such as Youth Radio in Berkeley, New Youth Connections newspaper in New York City, Video Machete in Chicago, the Computer Clubhouse in Boston, and the Educational Video Center in New York City (of which I am director), teens produce award-winning explorations of social and personal issues.

These issues include web sites on youth culture and the mass media, documentaries on youth violence and prevention, articles by teens living with AIDS, and radio interviews with homeless children and their families. Through these programs, young people turn the problems they encounter at home, in school and on the streets from stumbling blocks into stepping-stones for academic learning and personal growth. They also learn that their videos, articles and websites can make a meaningful contribution to the search for solutions. The youth media experience is almost always a transforming one.

But many of these organizations exist outside, or within the cracks and crevices, of more established school and after-school institutions. Like many effective youth programs, their survival is tenuous.

A recent flurry of cross-sector meetings among youth development practitioners, educators, business and philanthropic leaders is examining the intersection of youth work, technology and media. There is growing interest in supporting the expansion of media and technology projects to benefit young people. These are part of a strategy for developing the literacy and technical skills kids need for productive work and civic engagement in our digital age.

The Open Society Institute recently convened a working group of major funders to address the issue. A few months ago the W.K. Kellogg Foundation sponsored a national conference on youth and technology. The Benton Foundation, the National Urban League, America Online and other communications companies have launched the Digital Divide Network to address the gap in Internet access that has left many low-income families off the information grid.

A consensus is emerging that these media programs make a real difference in kids’ lives and should get help in reaching more youth. The Open Society Institute working group made two preliminary recommendations to provide capacity-building technical assistance in this emerging field: 1) document and disseminate best practices, and 2) provide teachers and youth workers with professional development so they can more powerfully use media and technology to teach literacy, critical thinking, and work and citizenship skills.

To put this in motion, those of us who work with kids must rethink the role that school and community can play in the new world of electronic media. The payoff will be youth who are intellectually and socially empowered by their engagement with media and technology. Perhaps when the next Kids and Media study is conducted, it will report that youth are spending less of their out-of-school time consuming commercial media, and more time producing their own.

Goodman, Steve. "Empowering Youth Through Media." Youth Today, April 2000, p. 58.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.