The Role of Media in an Adolescence Class

Changes in the media landscape, including definitions of media and student access, make it a challenge to teach about and use in the classroom.

A decade ago, media use was not a main topic in most adolescence text books. It was usually lumped in with work and leisure, and was only briefly touched on with descriptive information (e.g., how many adolescents had a t.v. in their bedroom). Media and technology have certainly changed in recent decades, and I think that our discussion of media as a context of development needs to change as well.

First, our definitions and understandings of traditional media sources need to change. For example, older media research discusses television as a family friendly medium, since families typically gathered around the television to watch together. However, the current generation of adolescents is likely experiencing television in a vastly different way—using DVRs, tablets, netflix, Hulu, and other ways to experience television “on demand,” and likely independent from their parents.
Second, there are additional media sources that we need to consider, such as social networking sites. In less than a decade since its invention, Facebook has grown to include over 845 million users, and has become a domain in which millions of social interactions occur every day (Wilson, Gosling, & Graham, 2012). Many of these users are adolescents and young adults, and they have developed with social networks as a normative context of development. What implications does this have for the development of identity, intimacy, social skills, cyber-bullying, self-esteem, and so on? Researchers are just starting to understand, and much more work needs to be done. Researchers have, however, agreed that the usage of Facebook (or other social networking sites) has become ubiquitous and common-place for today’s young people—which means it is a context of development that we can not ignore.
Finally, overall media use has been steadily increasing among adolescents, making it a context of development that is rapidly growing more and more influential.  In fact, the average teen today consumes over an hour more of media each day than just a decade ago, totaling just over 7 ½ hours per day.  That is more time per day than the average teen spends in school, with family, or even with peers— which we would all agree are important contexts of development.
Beyond teaching about the effects of media usage, how can we incorporate media usage into our classes to add to the academic experience? The students we are teaching are part of what has been called the “digital” generation. How can we capitalize on this to reach them in the classroom? I have been to conference sessions supporting the use of twitter in classrooms (as a way to gauge interest or knowledge), Facebook between students and Professors (as a way to establish rapport), and school supported sites such as Blackboard (to provide immediate access to course materials and grades). I have also been a part of numerous pedagogical conversations about the “dangers” and drawbacks of allowing technology into the classroom (cell phones and lap tops, in particular). So what is the answer?
To be honest, I am not sure… and I believe it is likely a moving target. I regularly use Blackboard for my classes, although even then I am not sure my feedback is “immediate” enough for some students. I have had success with incorporating some media references into my teaching (e.g., discussing “Mean Girls” as an example of cliques), as well as using short clips or memes to give visual examples of course concepts, or spark discussion. I have not been brave enough, however, to try the more cutting-edge techniques like Twitter. Since I haven’t ever tweeted, I think it is best not to experiment with it in the classroom setting.
The best way that I feel I have consistently capitalized on the importance of media, and our students’ interest in it, is with an assignment asking them to analyze song lyrics. Although the way music is delivered has changed in recent decades (e.g., tapes to CDs to itunes), the popularity of music with adolescents has remained fairly consistent. Some research even indicates that adolescence (and early adulthood) is when music is most influential in a person’s life. So, I have built an assignment around music, which I use with the unit on media each semester. I ask students to identify a song that is popular with adolescents currently (or when they were an adolescent), and analyze the lyrics. Specifically, I ask them to: 1) identify the intended audience (and how they know), 2) discuss the artist’s impression of adolescents (e.g., positive or negative), 3) determine the overall message of the song, 4) use a theory of media use (e.g., Cultivation Theory) to discuss the impact this message may have on adolescents, and 5) identify and explain any themes from class that are present in the song (e.g., peer pressure). The range of songs, as well as the depth of the analyses of them, has been astounding. Every semester I learn about “what kids are listening to these days,” as well as how thoughtful and engaged my students can be. Overall, this is one of my most engaging and enduring assignments, and each semester the students comment about how much they enjoy it. I really enjoy it too (although I know more about Taylor Swift than I ever wanted to).
By Renée Peltz Dennison, Ph. D.

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