Believe What You See? Teaching Kids to Interpret Media Illusions

Believe What You See? Teaching Kids to Interpret Media Illusions


By Melody Bergman

There is an old saying, “Seeing is believing.” But can we really say that anymore? Where media is concerned, you may be surprised. And what about our kids? The only way they will know how to distinguish between illusion and reality is if we teach them!

Just like we reassure our kids that the monsters in the movies aren’t real, we need to teach them that other things we see in media aren’t real either

Simple Points to Teach Your Kids

Those people aren’t real. Magazines may have been pulling the wool over our eyes for years–they use a technique on the cover called “airbrushing”–but with the innovation of digital photography, I think it’s safe to say that “photoshopping” is no longer a secret. And although we know that, our children might not realize many of the images they see are illusions.

Perfect skin without wrinkles or blemishes, superhumanly small waistlines, and a species that never grows older than age 21–this is not reality. But that’s what people in advertisements look like! For more on this topic and other body-image issues, check out Beauty Redefined.

Just because it’s moving, doesn’t mean it’s real. We know we can touch up photos. Most of us can do that on our own computers or hand-held devices. But what about a rock concert, a live broadcast, or a TV show? Those people are moving around, so surely they can’t be touched-up. Right? … Wrong.

CGI (computer-generated imagery) isn’t just for dinosaur movies and cartoons anymore. Modern technology allows us to edit and modify real-time images–while they are moving. Watch the music video for “Nouveau Parfum” by Boggie for a wonderful exposè on the process. (In case you’re wondering, she’s singing the names of different perfumes.) If you feel comfortable, show the video to your kids as an example of this sneaky technique.

Don’t drink the glue! When you watch a fast-food commercial, does it make your mouth water? You might not have that same reaction if you knew what they were really showing you! The truth is, studio lights are very bright and very HOT. Plus, it takes a long time to shoot a commercial. And real, untouched food wouldn’t look very yummy under those conditions.

Below are some techniques advertisers use–in addition to photoshopping–to get those salivary glands flowing. My kids and I found these tricks in Crispin Boyer’s book, That’s Sneaky: Stealthy Secrets and Devious Data That Will Test Your Lie Detector, and we thought they were pretty crazy (2014). I bet you’ll never look at a food commercial the same way.

-Real milk? Nope. It looks too transparent, so they use white glue.

-Fresh frothy milk bubbles in the cereal bowl? Actually, soap bubbles.

-Huge delicious turkey on the table? Not quite. It’s more likely undercooked, stuffed with paper towels, and painted by an artist to get that perfect crispy brown color.

-Steaming hot food? Not really. Probably got cold a long time ago. Then moist cotton balls were popped in the microwave and hidden in the food so it will steam at just the right time.

-Shiny red strawberries? Likely touched up with a little lipstick.

-Perfect grill marks? Mascara.

Those people are acting. I’ll never forget my first time at the circus when I was 8 years old. I watched, mystified, as a beautiful lady twirled and danced in the air–hanging only by the hair on her head! My first thought was, “Doesn’t that hurt?!” But then I got swept away by the music, the colors, the costumes, the reaction of the crowd, and–she was smiling! It must not hurt that bad. Now that I’m older I know it was an illusion. I know about the circus, and how they train performers to put on a good show even though the stunts they perform are incredibly dangerous and often extremely painful!

Media is like that too. Our kids see the illusions: rich people drinking certain beverages, teens finding happiness because of their clothes, people growing huge muscles because of a magic powder. And they will believe these stories are real unless we teach them: “Those people are acting!”

Some media is dangerous. Pornography is an especially scary form of storytelling, because it portrays sex, violence, and exploitation in a deceptive way. Just like the lady at the circus hanging by her hair, the audience is meant to believe “it doesn’t hurt” or “it must not be that bad” because “she is smiling.”

In fact, once during my years working with betrayed wives a woman confided in me that her husband used almost those exact words while he was assaulting her. She asked him to stop, and he told her: “You will get used to it. The lady in the porn liked it.” This is an epic media literacy fail. We need to teach our children NOW that seeing is not believing, so that if or when they ever encounter something so horrible they will already know: “That is not real. Those people are acting.”

It’s all about …. MONEY! Most importantly, we need to teach our kids the “why” behind all these illusions. There’s another famous saying: “Money makes the world go ‘round.” And unfortunately this one is more true now than ever. We need to empower our kids with the knowledge that whenever people create media, they always have a purpose. They want to get our attention, prove a point, or change the way we think. But at the root of it all, they usually want our money.

The truth is, behind every flawless face is a pricey beauty product. Behind every tiny waist or huge display of muscles is a supplement or dieting plan. Behind every steaming hamburger is a greedy fast-food chain. And behind every business is a marketing firm brainstorming ways to lure a younger audience–because the younger the better! They’d rather have a customer for life! More money!  

But we don’t have to fall for their tricks, and neither do our kids! As parents we have the power to help our children see past these confusing media mirages. When we teach them about media literacy, we are opening their eyes to a new reality where they are empowered to seek out the best and avoid the worst and where they know that their value is more than skin deep.

Ready to teach your kids to be more media savvy? Check out Petra’s Power to See: A Media Literacy Adventure, a fun, engaging story that also helps your kids practice deconstructing media around them. Try our read-aloud children’s book, Messages About Me: A Journey to Healthy Body Image, a great story and workbook to talk about healthy body image and media literacy.


Or check out our new Kids Activity Page! Have your children put their skills to the test decoding advertisements with fun interactive exercises for different age groups. Are they smarter than the media?


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Melody Harrison Bergman is a mother and step-mom of three awesome boys and founder of Mama Crossroads []. She has a bachelor’s degree in communications and has been writing and editing since 2002. Her mission is to motivate leaders and community members to educate and protect children and families. Her experiences as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and former spouse of a sex addict bring unique perspective to the fight against pornography and sexual exploitation.


Boyer, C. (2014, November 11). That’s Sneaky: Stealthy Secrets and Devious Data That Will Test Your Lie Detector. National Geographic Children’s Books.