The Cost of New Media–Less Comprehension?

some experts
worry the
shift from
print- to
video-based
instruction
could be
coming at
a cost of less
comprehension.
G. Jeffrey MacDonald

Watching video seems the least demanding of passive pursuits. We do it for relaxation, entertainment and sometimes for learning. But we are not taught how to extract information using the same critical skills that are required in reading, for example.

As a result, we may not be getting the full value of the content available in a video, or we may be receiving information that, if viewed with a more critical eye, might be received with different meaning than intended by the producer.

This sounds esoteric, but it isn’t. It’s really apropos to the increasing use of visual media by youth and adults to receive information. It is in this way that media shape our attitudes and form our perceptions. It’s how culture is, in part, created and passed on. So, it’s not really an exercise without real-world application. In the long-term, it’s about values education, in addition to other results.

Generations reared on Sesame Street have developed viewing skills intuitively which means their viewing habits are not critically formed. Lacking this critique leaves us unprepared to analyze what we see for messages that are conveyed subtly. I’m not concerned with the hidden persuasion that Vance Packard wrote about years ago. His thesis was that text messages could be delivered subliminally to manipulate us.

Writing in the Christian Science Monitor, G. Jeffrey MacDonald reports on the efforts of educators to help viewers use critical thinking skills when watching video. The concern of many educators is that viewing visual media stimulates emotional response, but doesn’t result in better comprehension of information. When we don’t apply critical thinking to our viewing we act as if viewing is a harmless pasttime. It isn’t. We’re processing the world even if we’re not fully conscious of the process itself.

Therefore, the idea that we are passive consumers of visual images coming at us in an ever-flowing stream is unhealthy because it leaves us unprotected. Visual images are designed to influence us for nearly every purpose under the sun. The messages aren’t hidden text edited into single frames, as Packard proposed. His concern was that hidden messages would affect our perceptions even if we don’t comprehend them consciously.

But in our highly mediated world messages are packaged and presented to us with skill and careful forethought. We need to be aware of the subtle ways this packaging is designed to influence our emotions and our consciousness. And we need to teach these skills to our children.

It’s true that children develop a healthy skepticism without being taught overtly. Their experience of the world the see on television and their real world don’t always jibe and they learn to doubt what they see on the screen very early.

Leaving this to chance is not a good practice, however. It leaves too much to the child who has no means to evaluate the authenticity of the visuals except personal experience. That’s not fair to the kids.

I have long thought that schools and churches should be teaching media education as standard parts of their curricula. And parents should be taught how to assist their children to view media with the critical skills necessary to process our world. The cost of these visual media is not just the loss of comprehension, it is the shaping of our perceptions without critical thinking. It’s about how we help our children perceive the world and what values are necessary to live in it.

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