Media literacy is something the cable industry has been talking about for a long time. More recently these words have become part of mainstream parenting vocabulary. But what do they mean?

What is media literacy? Would we define it the same way for every screen— television, computer,
handheld device, personal DVD player?

These are questions that many people ask, and the cable industry has sought to answer them, then share what it learns with the public.

Media literacy education basically comes down to teaching consumers (including children!) to view all media with a discerning eye and ear. As they are watching, reading and listening, they should be analyzing the material to determine whether they find it appropriate for themselves or someone else whose media consumption they might be managing. Part of this analysis should also include an endeavor to understand the message and intent of what they are seeing on screen.

The issue is not about what you let your children view on television or surf on the Web at your home, under your supervision. Children have access to all kinds of media almost everywhere they go throughout their day. The real issue is your answer to this question: What can you do to help them understand what they see and what it means?

Here are eight tips for taking a more active role.

  1. Find out how TV ratings and parental control devices can help you choose media appropriate for your family.
  2. Select programs, games and Web sites that instruct and engage.
  3. Establish household rules about how much media can be used and when.
  4. Learn about the kinds of media and technology children are using. What TV shows and Web sites are popular? How are they getting access to media— through cell phones, computers at school or televisions at friends’ houses?
  5. Watch TV with your children on a regular basis. Discuss the plot, setting and staging. Talk about the characters, and the consequences of their actions, motives and behaviors.
  6. Talk back to your TV so your family can hear what you think. Speak out when you see something you disagree with— otherwise those messages go unchallenged.
  7. Talk about how media productions are made (scripts, editing, production, casting, etc.).
  8. Network with other families to review and discuss TV shows, movies and other media.

Media offers amazingly powerful communications tools. By staying tuned-in, aware and active, we can take advantage of that power. Since 1994, the National PTA, Cable in the Classroom and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association have been partnering to disseminate information about media literacy and teaching parents how to take control of the media their families consume.

Cable companies, such as Cablevision and Time Warner Cable, are part of an industry-wide campaign to address concerns about what appears on television. They have created tools and activities to help individuals make wise viewing decisions by educating themselves about programming, by taking control of their own media consumption and by carefully choosing what to watch.

The newest industry-wide program focused on parent education regarding media literacy is called Control Your TV ( This program is designed to instruct families on how to use the tools provided by the cable industry to control which programs are shown on their television. Through community-based Control Your TV workshops sponsored by local cable operators, thousands of parents have learned how to manage the media in their home.

Digital and analog televisions allow parents to block certain channels using the parental control feature in the main menu. While specific instructions for how the technology works vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, they all allow the viewer to block entire channels or specific shows. In addition, all television sets 13-inches or larger manufactured after January 2000 contain technology called the V-Chip. The V-Chip utilizes the industry’s TV ratings system to block programs that may be of concern. Information on activating the V-Chip is available at

If you do not have a set-top box, your local cable company may be able to install a filter on the cable equipment outside your home that will block unwanted channels. This filter, often referred to as a “trap,” completely blocks a specific channel until the device is removed. Only a limited number of channels can be blocked out at the same time. Please check with your local cable operator for more details.

In 1996, the television industry created TV Parental Guidelines— a voluntary rating system designed to give parents information about the content of television programs.

This system provides parents with information about the content and age-appropriateness of television programs. These ratings can be used in conjunction with the V-Chip blocking device, and with the parental controls in cable set-top boxes, to filter out unwanted programs. More information about the ratings system is available at

In addition to providing information on teaching children good critical viewing habits and instructing parents how to block children from viewing unwanted materials, the cable industry also maintains a comprehensive list of family-friendly and educational programming on the Web site.

Family-friendly programming includes programming with a rating of TV-Y through TV-PG. Programming falling into these categories appears on almost every cable channel. Most news, sports or public affairs programming does not carry a rating.

Another invaluable tool is Cable in the Classroom, the cable industry’s education foundation, which provides a comprehensive schedule of educational programming that airs commercial-free and copyright cleared for parents or educators to record and use as instructional material.

Equipped with enough information and the right tools, parents will find that navigating the family media landscape is not nearly so daunting as it might first appear. Considering the boundless educational and entertainment potential of today’s media, figuring out the best route is well worth the effort.

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