“Power to the Parents” Radio Program to Welcome Dr. Gail Ferguson

by Danielle Bylund, NAZ External Communications Manager

Every Sunday, NAZ President and CEO, Sondra Samuels and her husband, CEO of Microgrants, and an ordained minister, Don Samuels host a radio show on KMOJ. The program “Power to the Parents” seeks to empower and reclaim agency for Black parents. Every week Sondra and Don, with the help of a guest, provide skills and knowledge to help parents reach their full potential as their child’s first and best educators and mentors.

Over the next two weeks, “Power to the Parents” welcomes Dr. Gail Ferguson a brand-new Associate Professor in the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota, where she directs the Culture and Family Life Lab. Her research focuses on the impact of modern globalization – especially media and migration – on child development, parent-child relationships, and family health and well-being.

Dr. Ferguson will be discussing the modern challenge of media literacy for families. Limiting screen time is a common parental practice, but Dr. Ferguson is driven to create resources that support families in making critical decisions about how children interact with media that may be predatory by nature, particularly for Black children and children of color. Her research has an impact on health and well-being and is pivotal to understanding what makes children and families make healthy choices.

Of particular interest to Dr. Ferguson is the connection between media consumption and poor diets and diet-related diseases. From the 2019 Rudd Report on Targeted Marketing, “[R]estaurants, food, and beverage (i.e., food-related) companies often target Black and Hispanic consumers with marketing for their least nutritious products, primarily fast-food, candy, sugary drinks, and snacks.” We were able to interview Dr. Ferguson about her work in advance of her appearance on “Power to the Parents.” 

What brought you to your current work?

As a child growing up in Jamaica, I remember my siblings and I anxiously awaiting 4 o’clock when TV programming would resume each afternoon after a scheduled break by the local station. You see, there wasn’t enough media content produced locally or imported to fill our national TV channel’s schedule — there was only one TV state in Jamaica at the time — and so there was a break for several hours in the middle of each day when a TV set would display a familiar multi-color striped image. Throughout my teen years, TV and satellite offerings expanded significantly, and when I left Jamaica to begin college in Massachusetts, cable TV exploded in Jamaica followed by growing internet availability. Now there is unfiltered access to U.S. cable programming in Jamaica, including all the advertising for food and products that you would see on those same cable channels if you lived in Florida. This is a common story across many countries in the world experiencing a type of Americanization due to a process called remote acculturation — the entire global community faces new opportunities and challenges regarding how to cope with a sea of media options produced in the United States, and parents are on the front lines. My research and the work of my lab, the Culture and Family Life Lab, is geared towards better understanding the ways in which media and globalization impact families today, especially Black families — in the United States, the Caribbean, and Africa so far. We use our research findings to help support and educate Black parents and teenagers, and develop intervention programs for Black families so that they can be more savvy and healthy consumers of media as they enjoy its benefits but avoid its risks.

Can you explain what influence unrestrained media has on mental health and by extension behavioral health in Black children and children of color?

Many of the influences of unrestrained media on the health of children (mental, behavioral, physical) are common to all children, regardless of what they look like or where they live – please see the tip sheet for comprehensive explanations. For example, point #1 on the tip sheet says: “Understand both the positive and negative aspects of media for your child’s age. Some positives are social connections with family and educational growth when using quality media at the right age. Some negatives of excessive media use are obesity risk, poor sleep, and cognitive, language, & behavioral lags. Young children need exploration and interactions with you for brain development, and screens cannot substitute. However, older children and teens can find positive elements of media that promote their development and can learn how to avoid negative elements if you observe how they use the internet, encourage high-quality programs/apps (e.g., PBS, Sesame Workshop), and teach them to ask questions about their media as you watch with them. (Sources: AAP, Pediatrics, JAMA Network)”

In addition to these general risks for all children and youth, food advertising in media presents unique risks to the health of Black families who are specifically targeted by food advertising promoting junk food on TV. The market research reports of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity (2015 and 2019) show that Black children and teens are disproportionately targeted by food advertising relative to White and Hispanic youth. Since 2013, spending on food-related TV advertising to the general US population and to Hispanics both declined, yet it increased by over 50% for Black youth during that same time period! We know that unhealthy eating increases the risk of obesity and other chronic lifestyle diseases that are also associated with bullying and mental/behavioral health.

In what capacity do you lead with national organizations with regard to media literacy?

I am the Director of a research lab at the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota called the Culture and Family Life Lab. In my lab, I am the Principal Investigator/Lead Researcher of an intervention called the JUS Media? Programme, which trains Black teens and mothers in media literacy skills so that they understand the tricks used in food advertising and other media in order to make healthier eating choices. JUS Media? combines several perspectives to provide families with well-rounded information and strategies – on our team we have experts in cultural developmental psychology (me – child development across cultures), media/advertising literacy (my colleague – Dr. Michelle Nelson), and nutrition and obesity (my colleagues – Prof. Julie Meeks Gardner and Dr. Barbara Fiese) and other partners who are experts in community coalitions (Brenda Koester). We implemented the JUS Media? Programme with Black families in Jamaica and are hoping to bring JUS Media? to families in Twin Cities and elsewhere in the United States as well, so we have just welcomed some new experts at the University of Minnesota to our team!

How does your work influence your parenting and the parenting of your social and familial circle?

Knowing what I know about media and child development and health, my husband and I put time and effort into planning media use for and with our children using the excellent guidelines we have summarized in this tip sheet. For example, for our 6-year-old’s media time, we regularly use free PBS shows that you can stream/download online, educational games/apps, and we use commonsensemedia.org to check out the content of movies to make sure they are appropriate for his age then we watch them together and comment on what we see in relation to real life (lots of things in movies couldn’t happen in real life) and our values (some things in movies match our values and others don’t). For our 16 month-old, we have not yet introduced media because developmental research tells us that her brain develops best with person-to-person interaction and conversation with us and her brother vs. a screen.

What is the one thing that you wish parents knew about media literacy?

For 21st Century parents and grandparents, media literacy is as important as academic literacy because our children are bathed in media 24-7, even at school. We can help them learn how to question what they see on screens, and how to choose media that will be both fun and healthy for them. And it’s never too late to start! Media literacy is a free gift you can give to your children this holiday – it’s a gift that will keep giving for the rest of their lives and that they can pass on to their children.

Using discernment when interacting with media sources can combat this targeting of children of color and mitigate the influence advertising has on healthy decisions. Particularly, this time of year, strategies to steer choices towards healthier options are a great resource for families with children on break from school. Dr. Ferguson has also created a valuable media literacy recommendation sheet that you can find here.

It promises to be a great discussion. Tune in on December 22nd and 29th from 11:30-12:00 on KMOJ 89.9 or live stream Power to the Parents here.