Girls see media messages more clearly with ‘Shades’

First slide

In airport terminals, on family room couches or, alas, at holiday dinner tables, the sight of teens absorbing media was nearly as ubiquitous this Christmas as the seasonal jingles playing in department stores.

From the smallest smartphone to the biggest big screen, teenagers soak up more sounds and images than ever before - and it's shaping the way they view the world and themselves, said Monica Kolf, founder of the Shades Media Literacy Project.

Through Shades, Kolf wants to help middle and high school girls detect and interpret the messages in media, understand the psychological effects of these messages and inspire them to create their own strong vision of themselves.

The name "Shades" comes from the idea that our perspectives, or lenses, color the way we see our surroundings, just as a pair of sunglasses would. Increasingly, the "tint" of those lenses is shaped by everything from YouTube to Twitter to cable TV, said Kolf.

Media of all varieties are here to stay, and Kolf wants girls to be wise and empowered consumers.

"I want girls to be happy. … And I want to not give them specific pointers - 'Do this and don't do that' - I want to help them form the habit themselves of how they spend their time and, more importantly, who they want to be."

The idea for the project, which will launch this fall, gradually came to Kolf while she was teaching at Oakcrest, a private all-girls secondary school in McLean and her alma mater.

"I realized (students) didn't understand the effect that media had on them," said Kolf. Students would tell her about their favorite TV shows, and the content would contradict what they believe, what their parents hoped they believed and what they were being taught at school.

Kolf said that language, as well as images, can alter viewers' understanding of the world and, consequently, their behavior. It's not just explicit sex scenes, for example, that can change a teenagers' view of sexuality; conversations about causal sex normalize it and lead teens to believe the behavior is no big deal.

"One of the indicators of youth sexual behavior is their perception of how sexually active their peers are," Kolf said. "And that perception is highly affected by the media. So they get the impression that everybody's sexually active, everybody's doing this."

Because the brain is not fully developed until about age 25, teens are especially vulnerable to media messages, said Kolf.

Her approach is to help teenage girls understand the influence of media from a psychological perspective. Parents or teachers might tell them that a particular movie is bad or that sex outside of marriage is wrong, but "I wanted them to understand that, psychologically, this is changing the way you think … (and) changing you in ways that you might not be OK with," she said.

The program will include workshops - informed by research on adolescent psychology and media use - focused on the influence of media in six areas: love, dating, marriage, sexuality, family and femininity.

Interwoven throughout will be discussions of body image, how the news is not always the "whole truth," and how the quantity of media consumption and multitasking has changed the way people relate to each other.

The workshops prompt teens to think about people they want to emulate, including individuals from their own life, literary characters or celebrities.

"If you don't specifically think about who you are, what your beliefs are and who you want to be later, if you don't have a vision for yourself and you're not intentionally striving toward that vision, you're going to end up living the way someone else wants you to live," Kolf said.

The workshops will be interactive, with educational exercises in the form of quiz shows, skits or online surveys.

Kolf eventually wants to address additional topics and include programs for men, youths of all ages and adults. Her dream is that the Shades model will be replicated and used throughout the country.

Shades is geared toward Catholic and private school students, youth groups, clubs and even impromptu groups. "A girl could invite friends over and have the workshop in the living room," she said.

The project is not explicitly Catholic or Christian, but it reflects Judeo-Christian values and Kolf's own strong faith. Through Shades, she aims to pass along the truths that are not only contained in church teaching but also supported by human experience, reason and science.

Kolf wants teenage girls to leave the program with the resolution to live their lives to the fullest and with intention. "I hope that they will find not merely pleasure in life, but also joy," she said.

"I hope that they will have greater influence on the world than the world has on them."

Find out more

To learn about workshops or to support the Shades Media Literacy Project, go here.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015