Teachers today play a critical role in helping students improve their understanding of how popular media and marketing can manipulate them. In some states, critical-viewing skills are a required part of the curriculum.

Teachers are pressed to explain to students that not everything they see on television or read on the internet is true—and that the people putting out the information may have ulterior motives. It has been estimated that children see 3,000 commercial images each day—whether television ads, banner ads on the internet, or the designer logo on a friend’s t-shirt.

Teachers must explain to students that the fancy images they see on the internet may be spellbinding, but they don’t necessarily improve the reliability of the information they contain, said Elizabeth Thoman, president and founder of the Center for Media Literacy in Los Angeles. “It was easier when you could just send students to the library to use a print resource, like the encyclopedia, which you knew had gone through several vetting processes,” she said.

One valuable exercise is to have students dissect their favorite television shows and magazines for messages with violence or sex. Some teachers have had success by having students look at how teenagers are portrayed on television.

Another technique is to ask students to find credible resources of information online. Coordinating this type of project to a national event, such as the recent presidential election, helps engage students.

Interest in these types of consciousness-raising projects is sure to rise, as a variety of public health groups are urging their members to engage in similar education. For example, in 1997, the American Academy of Pediatrics began encouraging pediatricians to explain to parents and children how tobacco and alcohol companies will target youngsters with their messages.