Online safety / September 17, 2021

Calling out versus calling in: preparing young people to engage with media

Matthew Johnson

Matthew Johnson

Director of Education, MediaSmarts

Child on a laptop wearing headphones

It’s something that’s happened to almost every parent. Your kids are watching a movie or a TV show and you see something that makes you uncomfortable. Maybe it’s a racist stereotype, the romanticization of stalking and harassment in a tween sitcom, or yet another cartoon with just one female character. Should you speak up? If so, what do you say?

This issue doesn’t just exist in the media that kids watch, either. When they’re playing online games, using social media, or just messaging with friends – they’re going to run into similar scenarios and face the exact same questions. MediaSmarts’ research report, Young Canadians Pushing Back Against Hate Online, found that nearly all young people have encountered racism, sexism, homophobia or other kinds of prejudice online, but that most of them rarely or never pushed back against it.

One of the challenges is not wanting to call out what we’re seeing. Criticizing our children’s media choices can easily make them feel we’re criticizing them, while responding too harshly to online comments can backfire: the people who made the comments may get defensive, and it may look to other people like you’re overreacting. While it’s important to teach kids how to respond when they see clearly intentional displays of prejudice and hate online, we also need to teach them to call in when the situation isn’t as clear.

Calling in

Calling in, a phrase coined by scholar Loretta Ross, starts by assuming the best about someone or something. There’s a difference between a media work that was motivated by racism or sexism, and one where it’s the result of the media-maker not questioning their assumptions or the “conventional wisdom” of their industry. In the same way, we can distinguish between someone intentionally spreading hate online and someone using a word or phrase they don’t realize is hurtful, or accidentally referring to someone by the wrong pronouns, or telling a joke without thinking how it might be offensive. As parents, you can call in by being actively engaged in your child’s media activities and helping them think constructively about the content they are consuming. Check in periodically when they’re watching TV or YouTube and don’t be afraid to use the pause button when something comes up that makes you uncomfortable. You may also want to do some research on the things they like so you can spot anything that you want to talk to them about and maintain an ongoing conversation about their media lives. When you call in, keep your kids from getting defensive by asking questions like:

  • Do you think that’s a healthy way to act towards a girlfriend or boyfriend?
  • Are the girls you know in real life like the ones in that show?
  • How might a racialized person feel about how they’re portrayed in this scene?

You may notice there are warnings about stereotyped content on some Disney Plus shows and this can be a teachable moment for talking about these problematic representations - and you can make a habit of pointing out positive or realistic representations when you see them, too. It’s important to teach kids from early on that critiquing a part of something like a movie or book doesn’t mean you don’t like it, nor does critiquing a work mean that you are criticizing the producer/author or anyone who likes it.

The key to “calling in”

This idea – that criticizing the work isn’t the same as criticizing the person who made it (or someone who likes it) – is also key to “calling in” when we see something offensive online. Kids often don’t push back against prejudice because they’re afraid it will make things worse, because they’re not sure if it was really prejudice, and because they’re not sure if the person really meant it. These are valid concerns: it’s very hard to read people’s intentions when you’re communicating online, and you’re just as likely to encounter someone who doesn’t realize what they said was offensive as you are to encounter someone hiding real hate behind a mask of irony. Calling in addresses these concerns by responding in a way that’s less likely to make the person defensive. Reaching out to them privately instead of publicly, for instance, or appealing to shared values by saying something like, “I know you didn’t mean to hurt anyone’s feelings”. Asking questions is also a key strategy for calling-in: “Can you clarify what you mean?” or, “Can you give me an example?” gives the person a chance to elaborate on what they meant. It can also be effective to call in by saying how something made you feel, even if you’re not the person (or in the group) that is affected: seven in ten Canadian kids say that prejudice against anyone hurts their feelings.

Calling out

There are also times when it makes sense to call someone out and speak up against the prejudice we see online (or face-to-face in real life). We can call behaviour out when something is happening that needs to be stopped before someone gets hurt (like when someone is being harassed in an online game); when we’re sure that the person knew that what they said or did could be hurtful; when it’s more important to send a message about the community’s values than to change a single person’s behaviour; and if we’ve already tried calling in without success. Whether our kids are watching movies, playing video games or connecting through social networks, we need to prepare them to engage with the media that they use and consume in an informed manner. Teaching them to “call in” – whether that means recognizing that works we like can have problematic elements, or that people we like can sometimes hurt people without meaning to – is a key part of preparing them to be active and responsible digital citizens.

For teachers and educators, check out this new TELUS Wise lesson plan: Calling out versus calling in - Helping youth respond to casual prejudice online.

Safe digital habits
Digital etiquette
Digital wellness
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